Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
A Palestinian vendor smokes a cigarette as he prepares coffee for customers after breaking his fast during the holy month of Ramadan in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
updated 9/20/2008 2:29:39 PM ET 2008-09-20T18:29:39

It's the fasting month of Ramadan, and fear of God keeps taxi driver Abdel Karim Romaneh from reaching for the pack of cigarettes next to his gearshift during the day, despite his pounding head and frazzled nerves.

But once the sun sets and the call of "Allahu Akbar" from Ramallah's mosques ends the daytime ban on food, drink and cigarettes, Romaneh indulges in his favorite vice.

"I don't want to quit smoking," said Romaneh, 42, who lights one Gauloise Light with another, inhaling deeply in between sips from a glass of thick Arabic coffee. "Smoking is a joy."

Like Romaneh in this West Bank Palestinian city, millions of Muslim smokers get on a nicotine roller coaster during Ramadan, which ends this year in late September. But health campaigners are increasingly trying to get them to quit altogether, using Ramadan as a springboard for anti-smoking drives.

A London mosque runs a "Stop smoking for Ramadan, stop smoking for life" appeal on its Web site, and a Saudi volunteer network is trying to bring that message to 10 million Arab Internet users.

Aurangzaib Amirat of Britain's National Health Service has toured more than a dozen Manchester mosques this Ramadan, handing out nicotine patches and lozenges to help the faithful quit for good. He said it's a good time to make the pitch. "They are fasting anyway," said Amirat, a Muslim.

Clerics are also coming under pressure to declare smoking "haram," meaning forbidden by Islam.

"Clerics and imams will be instrumental in getting the message out ... in saying smoking is bad for your body," said Shiraz Malik, executive director of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, which sponsors an annual anti-smoking campaign during Ramadan.

No addictions
Islam does not specifically ban smoking as it does alcohol, because cigarettes weren't around during the Prophet Muhammad's time in the 7th century. And many Muslims feel smoking is their only permitted vice and might resist new rules, Malik said.

Those favoring a ban quote the prophet as saying that believers must abstain from anything harmful. "Muslims shouldn't be addicted to anything," said Fadel Soliman, a former Muslim chaplain at the American University in Washington.

In a 2006 religious ruling, or fatwa, Lebanon's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah, ordered his followers to stop smoking. However, the leading Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories, Mufti Mohammed Hussein, says smoking, while "reprehensible," is not haram. And Gamal al-Bana, a maverick Egyptian scholar, says smoking is even allowed during the Ramadan fast because it's not explicitly banned in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, or by Muhammad.

Nate Salem, 25, of Kansas City, Mo., who observes the Ramadan fast, said he won't give up his pack-a-day habit for good unless he gets a clear ruling. "Until this moment, the scholars didn't decide 100 percent about it," he said during a visit to his native Ramallah, sitting in a cloud of smoke in a local coffee shop one evening last week.

Clerics might be reluctant to issue a fatwa that forces Muslims to choose between faith and addiction.

"(Even) if you say 'haram,' people will keep smoking because they are addicted," said Imam B. Prasodjo, a sociologist in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, where almost two-thirds of men smoke. Prasodjo is trying to persuade Muslim leaders to at least impose a ban on cigarette advertising.

Deep attraction
Smoking is embedded in the culture of many Muslim countries. About 63 percent of men smoke in Jordan; 49 percent in Tunisia; 42 percent in Syria; 38 percent in the Palestinian territories and 28 percent each in Lebanon and Morocco. Few women smoke because of cultural taboos.

Cigarette packs in Egypt carry graphic images such as a dying man in an oxygen mask. In Jordan, billboards warn about the risks. In Lebanon, many restaurants have no-smoking zones.

But it remains a battle, even — and perhaps especially — during Ramadan. Across the region, Muslims crowd restaurants and special tents after the "iftar," the meal that breaks the day's fast, and smoke, sometimes all night.

Smokers develop coping routines.

Saudi banker Tamer Aziz, 30, keeps busy, but says cigarettes are always on his mind. After sundown, he eats a date, drinks water and then lights up. Ahmed al-Saeed, 40, a shopkeeper in Amman, Jordan, dulls the urge by sleeping in the afternoon.

And some give up. In Tehran, Iranian civil servant Hamid Amiri, 43, sneaks into the bathroom for a smoke two or three times a day.

Romaneh, the Ramallah taxi driver, says fear of smoking-related illness is nothing compared to the fear of eternal damnation for violating Ramadan.

"This cigarette is burning me alive," he said. "I don't want it to be the reason for me burning in the afterlife."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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