Ramadan a month long event for fast friends to gather around the world
The Muslim holy month is a time for adherents to read the Koran, meditate on their religion, share with others and abstain from food, drink and ‘passions’ during the hours of daylight
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan started this week. Fasting during the day throughout Ramadan is one of the five core obligations of observant Muslims. Many are likely to take part in the fast, which falls during some of the longest, hottest days of the year.
Over the course of the month, Muslims are told to read the entire Koran – or about one-30th each night. And from dawn until dusk, for the 29 or 30 days of the month, to abstain from eating, drinking “and from the feeding of their passions – whether those passions are road rage or romance,” says Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam and the director of outreach at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Centre in Falls Church, Virginia.
Many Muslim scholars liken fasting to an almost meditative state or a heightened mindfulness that brings one closer to God.
The obligation is laid out in the Koran in the second Surah: “O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.”
“I have always wished the US Congress would take up fasting during Ramadan,” Abdul-Malik jokes. “Can you imagine Congress being in session and every member has to tell the truth before God?”
“The word sowm [Arabic term for fasting] actually means ‘to stop,’ ” says Suhaib Webb, a popular Washington-based imam who fields questions about the religion throughout the year, using a range of social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
To Webb, fasting poses an opportunity for broader change. People think, “If I can avoid stuff this month, I can do it the rest of the year,” he says. “You’ll find a lot of people quit smoking in Ramadan.” Others get in shape.
The UK’s National Health Service devotes an entire webpage to staying healthy during Ramadan. The Islamic Society of North America recently advised its Twitter followers how to be more conscious of environmental protection, too.
“There’s that foundational peace that really creates a tremendous spiritual capacity, really invigorates a person,” Webb says. “It’s a great reminder of what we have the potential to do if we really try.”
What about the food?
Ramadan also has a reputation as a month of feasting, and there are some people who definitely don’t lose weight.
For many, Ramadan after sundown is just as social as it is religious. Families and friends get together for elaborate iftar meals to break their fasts at dusk. And although iftar often starts with water and dates – which have a low glycaemic index, and are therefore less shocking for the body after a long day with an empty stomach – iftar is also a popular time for big dinner parties and extensive cooking. It’s an opportunity for families to showcase “what they consider their national dish,” Abdul-Malik says. (And then there are other nights when iftar is Pizza Hut delivery or McDonald’s after work. After all, it’s a month-long holiday.)
The morning meal, or suhoor, which comes just before dawn – or as the Koran instructs, before “you can discern the white streak of dawn against the blackness of the night” – is a more intimate family affair. Although prepubescent children are not required to fast, some enjoy the ritual of getting up while it’s dark to eat with their parents.
For better or worse, Ramadan has a decidedly different feel if you’re in a Muslim majority country.
In Egypt, colourful tent fabric appears outside mosques and restaurants, along pavements and in alleys, inviting the poor – or anyone – to gather at communal tables for a free meal to break the fast.
Fasting has a tendency to grind bureaucratic functions to halt, and shopping and socialising can turn into nocturnal pastimes.
Zaid Shakir, an Islamic scholar and the co-founder of Zaytuna College, an Islamic college in Berkeley, California, spent several Ramadans in Syria in the 1990s, and remembers how the streets of Damascus would go silent just before sundown. “You would not find a single individual on the street. Even the dogs disappeared,” he says. “It was amazing. I think it was indicative of how Ramadan takes over an entire society.”
As members of a minority religion in the United States, Muslims head into their Ramadan fast with the knowledge that most of those around them will not be partaking – and may even be oblivious to the holiday.
But the imams say that can be a good thing. “I enjoy Ramadan in America because America doesn’t stop for it, which is kind of cool because you have to juggle the material and immaterial,” Webb says.
Disciplining yourself to fast in spite of your everyday routines, temptations and responsibilities is part of the point: “When you’ve got to deal with your road rage, you’ve got to get kids ready for school, you’ve got to deal with Islamophobia – and the Muslim community really does feel like it’s under a microscope – it’s kind of a good time to fast.”
Not everyone has to fast (and not everyone does).
There are plenty of Muslims who choose not to fast.
But the Koran also excuses those who are sick or travelling. Generally, that includes women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people who require daily heart or diabetes medication, children and the elderly; people on planes, trains or car rides – or simply out of town.
For those who can’t fast, the Koran says: “God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship.” But if they are able, they are expected to make up their missed fasting days later in the year.
Ramadan is a time when imams get bombarded with questions about where to go to pray (a common query for new immigrants), how best to balance religious obligations with a fast-paced American work life, or family members who don’t fast.
Webb, who answers questions from thousands of young fans over social media, gets queries such as: “Does medical marijuana break my fast?” (Scholarly interpretations differ on whether medication is allowed during fasting. But generally speaking, medical marijuana is a tough call, Webb says.)
A huge part of Ramadan is giving to the poor.
According to the Koran, “it is incumbent upon those who can afford it to make sacrifice by feeding a needy person,” and it is said that the prophet Muhammad was the most generous during this month.
And it is common for Muslim charity efforts to go into overdrive during Ramadan. Mosques and wealthy individuals offer free meals to the poor. Nonprofit organisations solicit donations and the month is a popular time for volunteer work.
Ramadan gives Muslims an opportunity to reflect “upon our responsibilities toward those who are less fortunate than ourselves,” Shakir says.
Ramadan will start this year the same way it always does: with the first confirmed sighting of a new moon. Sometimes clouds or smog might get in the way, and experts disagree, so sometimes Ramadan starts on different days in different countries. Scholars and religious leaders tend to make the call.
Ramadan ends with the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, a day of feasting and celebration to mark the end of the fast.
Wish someone: “Ramadan Mubarak,” which means “a blessed Ramadan” or “Ramadan karim” – a noble or honourable Ramadan.