Ramadan is “the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset”; the origin of the Arabic word comes from “ramaḍa, ‘be hot,’” as originally the observance was supposed to occur only in the hot months, but “[t]he lunar reckoning of the Muslim calendar brings the fast eleven days earlier each year, eventually causing Ramadan to occur in any season” (OED). Now several differences must be noted between this definition of Ramadan and the events depicted in Chapter 17 of Moby-Dick, “The Ramadan.” We are, of course, in the hold of a frightfully cold New England winter, which Ishmael has noted several times, but Ramadan can occur, for reasons just stated, in any season. Also, Queequeg is not fasting and sitting in his statuesque pose on the floor from sunrise to sunset. Ishmael expects that he will be finished with his observances by sunset, and when he is not, Ishmael panics himself, proceeds to panic the staff of the Try-Pots, and knocks down the door of his and Queequeg’s room. He doesn’t break Queequeg’s spiritual concentration, but he does try to persuade him to return to bed and throw a blanket over his friend to keep him warm through the night. All the while, moreover, Queequeg has his wooden idol, Yojo, balanced on his head. All these details point to the key differentiating point about these events and the name “Ramadan,” which is that Queequeg is not Muslim, and therefore “Ramadan” seems at best a misnomer for what he is doing. In fact, at first Ishmael identifies Queequeg’s ritualistic “Fasting and Humiliation” as “some sort of Lent or Ramadan” (Chapter 16): language more openly expressive of his ignorance of Queequeg’s beliefs and spiritual practices. “[A]lthough I applied myself several times, I could never master his liturgies and XXXIX articles.”
More is taking place in Chapter 17 than just a convenient settling on the term “Ramadan” to describe Queequeg’s behavior, however; Ishmael’s whole attitude toward Queequeg’s spirituality undergoes a sea change. Whereas previously Ishmael happily partakes in Queequeg’s ceremonial offerings to Yojo, moreover, citing the Christian “golden rule” as a justification for his “turn[ing] idolater,” something has happened in Chapter 17 that has changed his attitude completely. He describes Queequeg’s pagan ceremonial fast as “deplorably foolish,” “comical,” “senseless,” and “absurd.” Once Queequeg rises from his vigil on the floor (at sunrise the following morning), Ismael encourages him to lie down in bed and talk a bit about how unhealthy his “Ramadan” is, how it opposes “the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense.” Queequeg, of course, is unmoved by Ishmael’s tardy insistence on converting his friend to his secular Christian sensibilities. Throughout Moby-Dick Queequeg is one of the most spiritually composed characters in the text; he has an even temper and does not succumb to pressures and influences (religious or otherwise) surrounding him. Ishmael himself, after all, has already pointed out Queequeg’s determination to “die a pagan.” Why then, after expressly exhorting his fellow Christians to “not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals”—as he points out at the start of “The Ramadan,” “we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending”—why then does Ishmael not long after so completely contradict his own more inclusive point of view? However we answer this questions, we should remember that in the process of this sea change in Ishmael’s attitude toward Queequeg’s spiritual difference and sovereignty, he idly throws around the name “Ramadan” like it is going to help matters any.