The Most Important Month for Muslims: Ramadan
The Most Important Month for Muslims: Ramadan
By Adrienne Moch
I’ve certainly heard of Ramadan, but before I started doing research about it for this article, I can honestly say I knew nothing about it. Unless you’re Muslim, you may share that lack of knowledge.
It can be quite enlightening to learn about religions other than your own; often, there’s more in common than you might think. And, it’s not like Muslims are a small minority — according to a 2015 survey, there are nearly two billion adherents around the world (almost a quarter of the population) and 50 Muslim-majority countries.
Ramadan 2019 began on Sunday, May 5 and will last through sundown on Tuesday, June 4. Observing it is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the five duties that are obligatory for every Muslim. Read and learn.
What is Ramadan?
The monthlong celebration commemorates Allah, the Arabic name for God, giving the first verses of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad in the year 610 A.D. For 30 days, Muslims around the world do not eat from dawn to dusk, pray intensely and gather for nightly feasts to break the fast. Ramadan is a month of personal growth that’s intended to facilitate spiritual reflection and purification.
Ramadan’s date, which varies each year, is determined by the cycles of the moon. It’s the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, and officially begins the morning after the crescent moon is visible to the naked eye. However, since the moon’s visibility differs around the world due to weather and geography, Ramadan does not officially start until religious leaders declare they’ve seen the crescent moon.
All About the Fast
Fasting is believed to be a key experience for Muslims and foundational to their religious identity. During Ramadan, Muslims enjoy a pre-dawn meal known as the suhur and at sundown they break their daylong fast with a communal meal called the iftar. Here are some of the basics about fasting — which doesn’t only apply to food:
It’s common for children as young as 7 to practice a limited form of fasting, but when puberty hits — around 13 or 14 — kids are expected to fast like regular adults, from sunrise to sunset.
Drinking anything is off-limits while fasting; pills must be swallowed dry. It’s customary to break the daily fast with water or a yogurt drink before enjoying the iftar.
Even chewing gum is prohibited.
Although it’s not an official rule, many Muslims will avoid smoking as part of their fast.
Beyond eating and drinking, people should also avoid behaving badly or immorally during the fast — trying not to swear, lose their tempers or gossip.
Married couples are expected to abstain from sex during daylight hours — something that’s as non-negotiable as avoiding food and drink — because fasting means curbing all urges.
Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating aren’t expected to fast, although many still do. It’s suggested they work with their doctors to find ways that are healthy and safe for them.
Preexisting medical conditions or old age may prevent people from fasting. Muslims with conditions like diabetes should monitor their health closely if they decide to participate.
Exceptional circumstances can make fasting riskier than usual. For example, during a deadly 2015 heat wave in Pakistan, religious officials said people at risk of illness or death may break their fast.
Those who are unable to fast during Ramadan are expected to fast later, unless their condition precludes them from ever fasting. Those who simply can’t will donate to a cause that feeds the hungry.
At the end of Ramadan, there’s a big three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr — the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. It’s kind of like the Muslim version of Christmas, since it’s a religious holiday where everyone comes together for big meals with family and friends, exchanges presents, and has a festive time.
Being Respectful of Muslim Friends
If you want to wish your Muslim friends or acquaintances a happy Ramadan or happy Eid al-Fitr, you can just say, "Happy Ramadan!" or "Happy Eid!" But if you want to show them you made an effort to learn more about their religion, the standard greetings are "Ramadan/Eid kareem" (meaning, "have a generous Ramadan/Eid") or "Ramadan/Eid mubarak" (meaning, "have a blessed Ramadan/Eid"). Even something as simple as learning one of those expressions and saying it with a smile will go a long way toward making a Muslim friend or colleague feel comfortable and welcome.
There are also things you can do, and not do, to make it a little easier for folks who are fasting for Ramadan. If you share an office with someone fasting, maybe eat your delicious, juicy cheeseburger in the breakroom rather than at your desk. If you're having a dinner party and you want to invite your Muslim friends, try to schedule it after sunset so they can eat.
A Final Thought
You may have read something in the media lately about the health benefits of fasting, in particular for weight loss, so it might be easy to jump to the conclusion that Muslims lose a few pounds during Ramadan. Actually, the opposite is often the case — because eating large meals very early in the morning and late at night with a long period of low activity in between can wreak havoc with fasters’ metabolisms. Those who are careful may lose some weight, but just like any other extreme diet plan, without structured and consistent lifestyle modifications, the results will likely be fleeting.
Now that you know about Ramadan, maybe it doesn’t seem all that challenging to have to give up something — just one thing — for Lent if you’re a Christian or fast for just one day for Yom Kippur if you’re Jewish.
Have any thoughts on Ramadan or even fasting for religious purposes? We’d love for you to share.