Quiet daytime main street in Hurghada, Egypt
during Ramadan Ramadan is the month-long Muslim fast. It is observed during the ninth month of the Muslim year. According to Islamic custom, every able bodied Muslim is required to fast during the daylight hours or "as long as a white thread can be distinguished from a black one."
Ramadan commemorates the night when Allah revealed the first portion of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed in A.D. 610. It is a time a sacrifice that leads to renewal and strength and is intended to teach Muslims discipline, subdue their passions, cleanses their spirit and humble them by letting them experience what it is like to be poor.
Fasting represents both a submission to God and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for God. By going through the experience together, Muslims are expected to develop a stronger bond with one another and a sense of community. Some religious scholars have suggested that Mohammed had Christian relatives and that the notion of fasting as a form of penitence was picked up from Christian ascetics who lived in the desert.
Websites and Resources: Islam.com islam.com ; islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islam.com Timeline classicalislam.com ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com
Busy nighttime streets in
Jerusalem's Muslim quarter In the Koran, Mohammed commands: “O believers, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may be conscious of God.” Ramadan’s name is taken from the Arabic word for “great heat.” It is not meant to be a time of penitence but rather a time of religion awakening, Esham A Hassaball wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “I take the opportunity of Ramadan to try to correct my character flaws, increase my acts of spiritual devotions, and improve myself through other spiritual projects.’”
In addition to fasting the faithful are encouraged to perform special congregational prayers at their local mosque, where Muslims often gather to break the fast together and recite passages from the Koran.
It is also important to recognize the poor, either by giving charity to the poor or providing food for them. Muslims often give their obligatory zakat payments during Ramadan and an additional “fasting charity” of at least $10 perf family member before the end of the month. Many Muslim believe that whatever charity , prayer or good deed you give you will be rewarded with one that is 70 times greater. By experiencing suffering through fasting one is expected to have more empathy for the poor and feel more willing to provide charity.
Ramadan is supposed to be a time of peace and compassion but some jihadists advocate that it is an ideal time to launch attacks, saying that the end of the of Ramadan fast is a particularly auspicious time for a martyr to enter paradise because the gates of hell are shut. Throughout their history, Muslims have scored important victories during Ramadan and launched offensives against non-Muslims and Muslims. Iran and Iraq fought, Egypt and Syria launched their offensive against Israel in 1973 and Palestinians kept up their intifada during Ramadan. Mohammed himself began preparations for the Battle of Badr on the 10th day of Ramadan.
Ramadan and the New Moon
Ramadan is the ninth month on the Muslim calendar. The fast officially start the first day after the sighting of a crescent moon, marking the beginning of a new lunar month. Shiites and Sunni sometimes disagree over the starting time for Ramadan. It is not unusual for the fast to begin two days later for Shiites.
In the Koran, Mohammed said: "Do not fast until you see the new moon, and do not break the fast until you see it; but when it is hidden from you [by clouds or mist] give it its full measure." This means that the fast of Ramadan might begin a day later in town with cloudy weather than one where skies are clear. There is also a stipulation that a "sane person" has to spot the moon.
For many Ramadan starts when the new moon is seen in Mecca. The new moon is usually sighted there on the first day of the lunar month because the weather is generally not cloudy in Saudi Arabia. When it isn't, the new moon is usually sighted the next day and the Ramadan and and the feast that follows began a day later. In 2004, for example, a new moon was not spotted in Saudi Arabia and many other places in the Middle East and the start of Ramadan was delayed one day.
A cannon is often fired each day to announce the rising or setting sun. Sometimes its also fired two hours before sunset to give people time to prepare the evening meal.
Ramadan and Fasting
Iftar in Istanbul The Ramadan fast is required of all Muslims who have reached the age of puberty. Children generally start fasting for half days when they are around six to develop disciple and fast full days for the first time around the age of 9 to 11, when the first fast is treated as a sort of coming of age ritual.
Devout Muslims fast everyday for the entire lunar month. Less devout may fast only on important days. Muslims that do fast the entire month say the first couple of days are the hardest, but once you get past that its not so bad. "I was almost blinded by a headache," one woman of her first fast sayd, "I had a splitting headache most of the day, a terrible headache, and I didn't understand why this would be anything that God could possibly want." Fasting is something than one does within oneself. It is easy to cheat and sneak a snack or a drink without anyone finding out.
The daily fasts helps the faithful understand the suffering of the hungry and cleans their body.Houston Rocket basketball Hakeen Olajuwan observed the month-long fast when it fell in the middle of the basketball season. When he played during Ramadan he said he felt, "lighter, faster, much more mentally focused."
Javeed Akhter wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Hunger is not a problem, nor is thirst, but the lack of sleep is. I rise at 4:30 to eat and pray before dawn, then lie down to try to sleep for an hour or so, often without much luck...I make an effort to overcome the faults in my character—my impatience, my tendency to be sarcastic, my egocentric behavior to name a few...I will further dedicate myself to the protection of human rights.”
Akhter wrote, “My first memory of Ramadan...is the expression of pure bliss on my father’s face as he drank a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade after he had broken the daily fast...At that time, my father was a government physician in a small town called Bhainsa in central India, where temperatures in the summer routinely exceed 100 degrees. After seeing patients in the hospital, he and an assistant would get on their bikes and trundle down narrow, unpaved streets to make house calls...My father made no concessions to his schedule during Ramadan. When he would return home just before sunset , he was exhausted and dehydrated.”
Other religions incorporate fasting—Christians sometimes fast during Lent and Jews do it on Yom Kippur—but they are generally not undertaken with the same rigor and determination and for as long a period of time as Ramadan is embraced by Muslims. Devout Orthodox Russians are among most serious Christian fasters.
Ramadan Restrictions and High Moral Conduct
Not good During Ramadan Muslim are expected to refrain from drinking (even a sip of water), eating (even potato chip crumbs), smoking and having sex. They can't even swallow their own saliva. Gum is out as are aspirin and injections or any other medicine unless they are needed for a life-threatening condition. Muslims are also advised not brush their teeth while fasting, lest any toothpaste accidently dribble down their throat. The use of eye drops and eardrops are okay because they don't end up in the stomach. During Ramadan, many men say they have a more difficult time trying to go through the day without any cigarettes than without food.
On Internet sites such as IslamOnline, a Cairo-based website created by Yusef Qaradawi, a popular Islamist preacher on the satellite channel al-Jazeera, users ask question about what is allowed and what isn’t. Abu Malih, an expert on Sharia who answer questions with the help of 10 assistants and advise from a network of 100 sheiks and muftis, told AFP, “It is sometimes difficult to answer, but never impossible.” His group has issued fatwas that using nasal sprays and receiving non-nutritive injections was in keeping with the Ramadan fast but smoking was not. His group also said dreams with a sexual content are okay as long as you don’t carry out the acts.
The Koran itself does not have a lot to say on the matter: It simply tells the faithful: “Fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you.” One imam told the Washington Post, “It’s that simple. Allah is the only one who has the right to tell us how to worship and it is not for us to choose how and when.”
Ramadan fasting is more than simply not eating and honoring all the restrictions. The faithful most also act with high moral character , not harm anyone or perform ant evil deeds. They fast is expected to cleans one both physically and morally and help one feel reborn and reconnected after it is finished.
A saying attributed to Mohammed goes: “God does not need your fasting if you do not leave off talking badly or abusing people or making quarrels...You must control yourself, be patient and change yourself. And also, if someone comes and fights or quarrels with you, say: I am fasting, Don’t do this.’ Or you will lose your reward.” Mohammed is also said to have stressed the importance of purity of word and deed: “Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, [let him know] God is not in need of his giving up his food and drink.”
Avoiding the Ramadan Fast
Streets of Jerusalem at night Those that are exempt from the Ramadan fast include young children, pregnant women, the ill or infirm, those traveling or engaging in heavy manual labor, the elderly, and women who are nursing or having their period. Those that are exempt are expected to make up for it by fasting later an equal number of days to the days the days they missed.
Although they are not really supposed to, many Muslims escape the discomfort of hunger and thirst by sleeping until sundown. It more acceptable to take a nap or sleep after the morning meal, which often starts around 5:00am after morning prayers.
Muslims look forward to having Ramadan in the winter because the shorter daylight hours means that they don't have to fast as long as do in the summer when they sometimes have to wait until 8:00 or 9:00pm, depending on the latitude of their country, to eat. Turks joke about outlawing daylight savings time and heading to Australia or Chile when Ramadan is in the summer time.
Eating During Ramadan
Iftar in Patterson, New Jersey Food can be eaten before the first signs of dawn and after sunset. There are no limits on what one can eat during the hours of darkness. Often big meals with special foods and breads are prepared in the evening and sometimes social gatherings go on all night.
One Egyptian man told the New Yorker, “Everyone gains weight. You sit in a café until midnight and then you go to friends houses and eat till two in the morning or later. Then you sleep some and wake up before sunrise to have some cheese or yoghurt to get you through the day.” A Moroccan added, “Unemployment is so high that a lot of people, especially young guys, sit around all day, playing cards and thinking about food.”
Iftar and saum are names of meal eaten after the sunset prayer to break the fast. suhur (also spelled sahur or sohoor ) is the meal before the fast. It usually begins about an before dawn. If a man can not make it home for the iftar he can stop at a mosque to eat. The meal often being with a single date and a drink of water—this is believed to be how Mohammed ended his fasts—or a simple meal of fruit, dates, water, yoghurt, milk and juice.
If you are a non-Muslim and are with a Muslim person during Ramadan, it is considered inconsiderate to eat, drink or smoke in front of them. During Ramadan tea shops and restaurants are often closed during the day, but reopen at night. You can often find a shop that is open though. Even so it is good idea to buy food the evening before the day you need it. If you buy food during day at a shop don’t eat where people can see you. Eat in the privacy of your room.
Common iftar dish Dates are traditionally the first things eaten to break the fast. Dates are of the few foods that grows in the desert. They come from palms found at oases. Many Muslims like to break the fast in a mosque with a meal of dates, oranges and other fruits.
Many Muslims break the fast with a light meal of fruit juice and soup and have a big dinner in the middle of the night. Other have a meal ready with dates, rice, chicken and a bowl of mulokhia — a soupy, spinach-like dish spooned over rice—and dig in immediately after the sun goes down. Many people eat sweets like saiwiyan , noodles cooked with milk, sugar and coconut, and candy made with nuts, honey and sesame seeds. Deserts and pastries made with walnuts and honey are popular in other places.
Most Muslim nationalities and cultures have special foods that are eaten during Ramadan. Egyptians eat butter cookies, raisin and walnut pancakes, beef stew with okra and onions and a pita bred casserole topped with rice, chicken and broth. Pakistanis eat dates, pakora (balls of vegetables and beans), biryanu (rice steamed with spices), diced mixed vegetables and raita yoghurt sauce, and a variety of fruit which is diced and mixed with yoghurt pepper and chaat masala.
Ramadan dishes served in Iran include Aashe-e Resshteh (a soup made with several kinds of beans, noodles and a kind of smelly dried whey called kashk. Donuts are given to children. Dishes served in Morocco include lost of sweets such as shebakiya (sesame cookies) and haloua zoumita (nut candy).
Turks eat Lentil soup, butter rice, lamb stew, rice and bean pilaf, Turkish bread and a green salad. Desert consists of rice pudding with black tea. Ramadan dishes served in India include dahl wada (flour dumplings in yogurt), bhajiya (deep fried onions), mirchi (stuffed peppers) and khir (rice pudding and nuts).
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011