The Muslim month of Ramadan started yesterday. Many of us know loosely of this as a month of fasting, but really have no idea of what it means for a Muslim. And I suspect most of us are completely unaware of the challenges Ramadan imposes on a Muslim striving to sustain an ordinary life and livelihood in a Western culture that has not evolved to make room for this observance. I thought it would be useful as we move into this month to reflect on some of the major points and practices.
I hope, as you read these and develop an understanding of what Ramadan calls for from a Muslim, you will find empathy for Muslims who are observing the fast and will look for ways to acknowledge and support them. The easiest way to do this is to say “Ramadan Mubarak” or “Ramadan Kareem” to a Muslim, by which you are offering them a blessed or a generous Ramadan. Maybe you’ll even want to get a little taste of this yourself! (And I give a couple of thoughts on how you might do so.)
So here are five things every non-Muslim should know about Ramadan.
1. When Is Ramadan?
Ramadan is one of the twelve months of the Muslim calendar, specifically the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. The Muslim calendar is lunar, and as such Ramadan moves by approximately 11 days each year: this year it began on June 6, so in 2017 it will begin in late May. And because it is lunar, the month lasts 29 or 30 days, and the precise day of the start and end is determined by the observance – or lack of observance – of the new crescent moon.
This form of calendar might seem silly to those of us accustomed to the Julian calendar of fixed dates, but if you stop and reflect, you’ll see that all of our calendars are somewhat arbitrary. It’s a lot like paper money: a calendar only means something if, in a social construct, we all agree what it means. If you think on this, I hope you’ll come to the conclusion that a lunar calendar is not “primitive” or “inaccurate”, but rather just different from what most of us are used to. If we were to all agree to work on a lunar calendar then it would work every bit as well as a Julian calendar.
Think about it!
Determining the start of a month by lunar sightings creates, in our Julian-calendar-sense, a 24-hour uncertainty on the start and finish of the month. From another perspective it’s not uncertain, but it can be very confusing to non-Muslims. I suspect a friend of mine who related that her boss for years didn’t understand how someone as smart and organized as her did not know when Ramadan was starting or ending is not alone! If you have a Muslim colleague or co-worker and they say, I’m going to be observing a different schedule beginning Tuesday or Wednesday next week,” it doesn’t mean they are an idiot!
To add a layer of confusion, you might have Muslim co-workers observing slightly different Ramadan dates!
Let me explain this one. The phases of the moon can be subtly different in different parts of the world, so the new moon may be seen on different days. Most Muslims follow the lunar sightings in Saudi Arabia (where Muhammad lived), but many instead follow local observations. This means that American communities which following the Arabian calendar can be one day out of phase with American communities following a calendar based on American lunar observations.
Ramadan ends with the celebration of Eid al Fitr, one of the big religious holidays of the Muslim year, on which there is to be no fasting. Expect to see Muslims partying, celebrating, and eating a lot!
2. The Practice of Fasting
During Ramadan Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. With Ramadan happening in the summer months, the days are long – today will run from roughly 4:50 am to 8:50 pm, a total of almost 16 hours of fasting. And the days are hot are hot! Imagine if you were a Muslim working on a building site or a farm – anywhere outdoors where you will be hot and sweating a lot! During a winter Ramadan, on the other hand, fasting will be for shorter periods on shorter days. Ironically since fasting can have considerable spiritual and physical benefits, for many Muslims the longer and hotter days are not regarded as a hardship (but see point 3 below).
Fasting means abstinence from all food and drink (yes, not even a sip of water – think of how this would feel on that building site!) as well as cigarettes and sex. Fasting heightens awareness of stimulus and of what is going on around oneself, and for many it is also appropriate to intensify the experience of fasting by withdrawing the senses from other inputs, such as television.
My own experience of Ramadan is that it takes two or three days for the body to adjust and for the fast to stick, and that after this the body knows that it is not going to have anything to eat or drink after morning prayers. So in this sense the fast becomes easier after a couple of days. As this ease of being emerges, an awareness opens up and everything slows down. The Ramadan fast is a time of peace and clarity and mindfulness. Many Muslims I know look forward to Ramadan every year. I have come to do so as well, and it is with great reluctance that I decided that this year I can’t afford the time to observe. But I will be back next year!
3. Daily Breaking of the Fast
The fast ends every day at the start of the evening call to prayer. Muslims will gather at the home of friends or at a mosque each evening and await the first sound of the adhan, at which point they will break the fast with a glass of water and traditionally a couple of dates (which in my experience are a wonderful way to end the fast). In the south, many mosques will also offer watermelon (different but also a wonderful experience). After breaking fast, the sunset prayer is made, and then Muslims will sit down to dinner together. Somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half later, the evening prayer is made, after which many will go to a mosque for to observe Taraweeh prayers, during which a thirtieth of the Qur’an is recited. (The Qur’an is broken into 30 sections called “juz” (plural “ajiza”), so that during the course of Ramadan the entire Qur’an is recited.)
During the month of Ramadan, mosques offer communal evening meals (iftar), donated by their members. (Ramadan is a time of charity and generosity in Islam, and offering such a meal is in a sense a privilege.) Iftar is a wonderful time of giving, of community and of celebration, and if you are curious you would be a welcome guest anywhere. If you have a Muslim co-worker, then it might be interesting to fast for just one day with them. Ask them about breaking the fast and they will likely invite you to join them at their home or their mosque for iftar.
Some communities offer a formal “interfaith iftar” or fast-breaking event intentionally opened up to non-Muslims for education and community purposes. In Atlanta, for example, the Atlantic Institute does this every year in Alpharetta, and the Atlanta Masjid of al-Islam often does so in East Lake.
4. American Society Doesn’t Make It Easy
Imagine living a day in the life of a Ramadan-observing Muslim and what this would feel like in American society:
- you will get up early to prepare and eat breakfast before morning prayers, so your breakfast will be finished around 4:30 am;
- you’ll probably be tired and want to take a nap before your day at work begins;
- you will not be eating or drinking during all of those business breakfast, coffee and lunch meetings…and since much of the business world is built on such meetings, your productivity and development will slow down considerably;
- without food and water all day, you will slow down. It’s not that you can’t work or function, but that the world seems to move slower, that you seem to move slower, and in the mindful space your productivity again will just diminish;
- you will have no interest in the typical evening social world, whether networking events, office social gatherings, or activities with friends and colleagues;
- moving later into the evening your attention will start to focus on iftar, and you will gather with friends, family, or at the mosque to participate in preparing the evening meal. Eventually you will break fast, pray, and eat your dinner;
- after dinner you will go to the mosque for prayers and for the reciting of the Qur’an;
- you’ll get home around midnight….and be up again bright and early to start again!
During the long days of Ramadan, which extend deep into the night, there is a great deal of need for resting and napping during the day. Unaware of the strains that Ramadan puts on Muslims, American society is pretty uncompromising and doesn’t make much room for this.
More broadly American society also doesn’t make it easy for a Muslim to observe their prayers, which are mandatory and must be performed within a fairly small window of time. Most challenging are the afternoon prayers, which this time of year are around 2:00. This is especially true on Friday when Muslims are called to gather in community to perform their afternoon prayer.
5. Hitting Reset
In the Jewish and Christian worlds Moses fasted 40 days, and in Christianity Jesus fasted for 40 days. And Lent, the Christian observance of fasting in preparation for Easter, also lasts 40 days. Fasting for 30 or 40 days is a broadly observed spiritual practice which slows things down and heightens consciousness. At the same time it builds mental fortitude. So during a time of fasting our awareness is more acute and our will power stronger. Old habits we wish to end can be seen more clearly and we can intentionally cut them off, and new habits can be cultivated. Ramadan functions as a biological and mental reset. It cleanses the body and mind and prepares a person for the year ahead of them.
A former colleague who travelled a lot with work and was called to a great many social events used to stop drinking alcohol for the month of January. I look at this in the same manner: he was in his own way hitting reset. I suspect that you know someone who has undertaken an ayurvedic dieting process for the same purposes: an intensive and intentional prolonged period to reset the body.
I have observed Ramadan the last few year and found it a profound experience. I have decided for practical reasons not to fast this year and I am already missing it; I am also already looking forward to returning to the observance again next year. I hope that you will join me this year in a lighter observation and awareness of Ramadan. Find a Muslim friend or colleague and talk to them about Ramadan; pick a day to abstain from food and water from dawn to sunset; and join your friend for iftar. I promise you will find it a deeply rewarding experience personally and that it will also help you cultivate not just an understanding of Ramadan, but help you build respect, maybe even admiration, for those called by their faith to do this every year without compromise.