I should be able to answer this having converted to Islam in 2005 and now approaching my 7th Ramadan in an Arabic, Muslim country. But some things are easier to explain than others. Scientists can describe and explain every physical, functioning part of the human body but they have yet to discover the essence of what we call the soul or the spirit. I’m confident about outlining the practicalities of Ramadan but I’m not so sure I’m capable of communicating the spiritual joy that the month brings for the majority of Muslims. Fasting every day for a full month is a physical achievement that leads to an emotional and spiritual high. Perhaps the best way of explaining this is to picture the tennis player Andy Murray when he won Wimbledon last Sunday. Most professional athletes experience a sense of euphoria when they have pushed themselves to the limit and performed at their highest possible level. For devout Muslims, Ramadan is the big event of the year, the month which defines Islam.
The Essence of Ramadan
Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic lunar calendar. For some, it’s about spending more time with family, getting a month of half days off work, and enjoying lavish Iftar meals every evening. For others, it’s a chance to perfect their religion and get closer to the Creator by practising self-restraint, humility, and generosity to others.
I’ve often seen Ramadan described in the media as the month when Muslims ‘fast all day and feast all night’. Some may do this, but they’d probably have to sleep most of the day to manage it for 29 days or more. One essential of Ramadan is that you continue with your daily routine as much as humanly possible, ie, normal duties should not be neglected. Indeed, more time is needed for extra prayers, reading the Qur’an and preforming charitable deeds. Here in the UAE, the government orders the public and private sector to close their offices early during Ramadan, usually around 2 or 3pm. This is for everyone, not just those fasting. In a nutshell, Ramadan is a month for striving to be a better human, for strengthening your relationship with the Creator, for coming together as a community, and for empathising with the poor and the hungry.
The Rules of Fasting
The month of Ramadan begins with the sighting of the first crescent moon and continues until the start of the next lunar month, Shawwal. The fast begins at the break of dawn, also the time for Fajr, the first of the 5 daily prayers, and continues until sunset with the call of the 4th daily prayer, Maghrib. During the fasting period the following is forbidden: food, drink, smoking, sexual activity, telling lies, slandering others, gossip, and other generally bad behaviour. For example, a Muslim who finds him/herself getting into an argument is likely to say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m fasting. I won’t argue with you.’ In effect, these abstentions force us to forgo our physical desires and instincts in order to obtain dominion over them as opposed to vice versa.
Who Does Not Fast?
All Muslims who are healthy, able and capable should fast during Ramadan, but there are numerous exemptions. Those who are excused include: children, the sick, pregnant women, breast-feeding women, the insane, and travellers. It is a requirement that those who are exempted (or their families on their behalf) feed at least one poor person per day during Ramadan. Menstruating women do not fast but should make up the days missed after Ramadan.
Meals During Ramadan
Before dawn a light meal, Souhur, is taken – porridge, dates, fruit, beans, lentils are all recommended as well as plenty of fluids. Iftar (breakfast) is the evening meal. Most people in the UAE drink water and eat a few dates before praying Maghrib . They then sit down with family and friends for a large meal. There is a communal aspect to this and families exchange food, invite others to share in the meal at their home, and send food to the mosques where large numbers of ex-pat labourers are fed by the local community in specially erected Iftar tents.
Ramadan can be one long round of visiting and sharing, exchanging favourite recipes and for some, spending too much time in the kitchen. In the UAE cafes and restaurants close during the fasting hours, but can be extra busy in the evening. Hotels usually continue to serve food and drink as their clients are generally tourists and non-Muslim, but often, screens are placed around the eating area to shield the activity of eating from those who are fasting.
The Benefits of Fasting
Fasting is a great way to detox. One of the latest dieting trends, The Fast Diet by Michael J. Mosley and Mimi Spencer, has become an international bestselling book. Although it is not written by a Muslim, it follows the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who always fasted on two days per week, Monday and Thursday.
More important than the physical benefits of fasting are the spiritual. Fasting pushes you to experience what it’s like to go without food and drink on a regular basis. It is an exercise in self-discipline and restraint that allows you to empathise with those less fortunate. You will never taste water so sweet as the first sip you take after a day’s fasting. Personally, I always find I want to eat less and waste no food during Ramadan. Fasting makes us more appreciative of the simple things we normally take for granted, the staple food items of which so many in the world are deprived. Fasting leads to humility and that, pure and simple, is perhaps the most significant benefit of Ramadan.
Many atrocities have been committed in the name of Islam. Too many citizens of countries with a Muslim-majority population are suffering turmoil, violence and heartache as Ramadan 2013 begins.
As I pray this Ramadan, my thoughts will be with the people of Syria and Egypt in particular. It’s estimated that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Islam is an umbrella for many diverse and ancient cultural practices that are often mistaken for having their roots in Islam. Likewise, literalist and non-contextual interpretations of the Qur’an distort the message of Islam, which is fundamentally a moderate religion. In the midst of all this confusion and misinformation, I welcome Ramadan because for me, it represents all that is best in Islam.
* Please feel free to comment on this post and ask questions. I welcome frank and open discussion. Also, if you know I have made any mistakes in my description of Ramadan, please correct me.