undergoing a clash of cultures, it is important that we try to understand the belief systems and values of others, for understanding engenders tolerance and peace. Whether you live or work with Muslims and want to relate to them better, or you simply want to have a better insight into the world’s second largest religion, this comprehensive article will help you understand what Ramadan is all about.
First of all though, few non-Muslims realise that Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews. According to Islamic teaching, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad at Mecca and told him that God had entered him among the ranks of such great biblical prophets as Abraham, Moses, and Christ. That’s why he is referred to as the Prophet Mohammed.
The important values underlying Islam are compassion, charity, humility, and the brotherhood of man. Also the Qur’an mentions Abraham, Moses, and Christ many more times than it mentions Mohammed.
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So, what is Ramadan?
For Muslims, there are four holy months in each year and Ramadan is the holiest one. It’s a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, spending time with family and friends and carrying out good deeds and charitable giving. According to Islamic belief, Ramadan is also the month when the gates of heaven are open and those of hell are closed, making it easier to do and be good.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast between dawn and sunset. This means abstaining from food, drink, chewing gum and smoking in any form. Added to that, they are required to refrain from listening to music, other entertainment activities (during the day) and also abstain from all intimate marital relations (during the whole of Ramadan). Yes – that means no sex or lascivious thoughts for a whole month! Spiritually, one must strive to improve oneself during Ramadan, so there is no gossiping, lying or falling back on bad character traits. As guided by the Qur’an: ‘Purity of thought and action is paramount’ 1.
Muslims are also urged to read the entire Qur’an during Ramadan. For serious reflection and worship some spend a lot of time in the mosque praying and reading.
Why do my Muslim friends/ colleagues around the world fast?
Principally, fasting teaches Muslims self-discipline and generosity to others, whilst reminding them of the suffering of the poor. However, what many can forget is that the stated definition is only the basic act of fasting; and beneath the simplicity lies a much bigger and more important set of do’s and don’ts if one truly wishes to derive the full benefit of fasting. The actual act of fasting engenders self-restraint and takes hearts away from physical activity directing them towards the Divine; focusing on the aspects of worship, purification of the soul, and reflecting on the mercy of this blessed month in our behaviours.
The main physical and spiritual aspects of the fast are ordained in the Qur’an. Muslims believe that God began revealing the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan .The Qur’an commands: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint…Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting…” (Chapter 2, verses 183 and 185).
This seems a little complicated, are there any rules to fasting?
When Muslims fast, they must refrain from all ‘fun’ physical activity, such as dancing, and resist temptations. Muslims begin observing the fast from puberty as long as they are healthy. The elderly, as well as those who are mentally or physically ill, are exempt from fasting but should feed the poor instead, as their act of obligation. Others who are exempt include pregnant women, nursing mothers and women menstruating. Those travelling for a few days may also be exempt.
So what should Muslims not do in Ramadan?
- Ramadan is not for arguing or debating over the Hilal (moon sighting – which is different all over the world).Muslims are expected to use the time to focus on learning something that would benefit yourself and your family.
- Ramadan is not for overeating, overindulging in food, drinks, or obsessive cooking when the sun goes down; eat in moderation food which is halal, organic and wholesome. Fasting should teach self-control and discipline over our bodies and over what we consume. The Qur’an teaches moderation and self-control in all aspects of life, and forbade us to harm ourselves, directly or indirectly.
- Ramadan is not for Haram (things forbidden by the faith), so avoid Haram in selling, buying, eating, drinking, smoking, and in your relationships. This means abstaining from food, drink, chewing gum and smoking, listening to music, other entertainment activities and intimate marital relations.
- Ramadan is not for cheating, lying, backbiting, gossiping, slandering, or spreading rumours. If the tongue is able to avoid the pleasure of tasting food and quenching its thirst, then why not keep it clean from what can ruin the fast?
- Ramadan is not for overspending on food and parties. Feed the poor, invite relatives and friends to spend time with you, but do not show off or compete in overspending.
- Ramadan is not for oversleeping. Muslims should pray more, read the Qur’an more and work during the day. That is the Sunnah of the Prophet Mohammad. Laziness has no place in Ramadan.
- Ramadan is not for wasting time by watching more TV. The temptation is great as TV channels compete in showing their best programs during Ramadan! However, Muslims are supposed to recognise that time is precious and will regret every minute wasted by not spending it in an act of worship or goodness in order to forge better lifelong habits in the process.
- Ramadan is not for inviting the wealthy while ignoring the poor; so when planning Iftars (the evening meal when Muslims break their fast), Muslims should remember to invite the needy and those who are usually forgotten.
- Ramadan is not for losing control over stress, nerves, emotions, frowning, showing anger, or making excuses for letting ourselves vent or explode because “I am fasting and hungry.” It should be the opposite. In fact, fasting should teach people how to control their emotions, to be more patient, have a better balance of mind, body and soul, and how to smile more.
- Finally, Ramadan is not for ‘acting as normal’. The road to Paradise is not easy; unless one struggles with every step on the journey you may lose the way.
When does Ramadan take place?
Unlike the Christian festival of Christmas, Ramadan takes place at a different time every year and falls in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Official observance dates can be found here.
So, when DO people eat?
Muslims eat two meals a day: just before sunrise (Suhoor) and directly after sunset (Iftar). People often eat dates at Iftar, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s a social occasion with families gathering together to break their fast and share Iftar. Music is allowed but will be prohibited when fasting begins again.
What’s it like to fast?
See article on ‘What is it like to fast for a month?‘
A common question that usually arises when someone hears about you fasting is: why fast? What’s the point? And the answer is this: because the Qur’an bids it (incidentally the Jewish and Christian faiths also advocate fasting). Muslims are called by their religion to celebrate the month by coming together in worship, fasting each day for thirty days from dawn until sunset. While this may seem like a tremendous feat, consider this: Fasting while working is an even greater endeavour.
Although energy levels might be low, the point of fasting is not to slack off from any other duties and responsibilities. Muslims believe that they are rewarded for continuing to work and produce during their fast. Fasting is not a reason to push meetings, clear schedules, or take a lighter load on projects.
A friend of mine told me this:
I’m only in Day 2 of the fast, and you won’t believe how certain things are becoming more tempting than normal. Already I find myself thinking that a piece of fried chicken or an ice cream sundae would be really good to eat. My point is that fasting, though not easy, is a great way to practice discipline, and you’d be surprised by the things that end up tempting you that were never a problem before. But the flip side is that it can also be a time where you go deeper in your walk with Allah than you have in a while. So, please just ignore my stomach when it growls at your sandwich!
Keep fit enthusiasts will often re-arrange their schedules to do their training workouts early in the morning when they have more energy. However, many fitness and nutrition experts say it is better to start exercising a couple of hours before breaking the fast so that you only have an hour or so to go before eating and drinking. A long period between your training and break-fast will dehydrate you so much that as the day progresses you could suffer headaches, dizziness, and all sort of pain. Therefore, you have to be cautious on picking the right time to excersice in Ramadan.
Another friend said:
It’s officially week 2 of fasting for Ramadan and the cravings for coffee have now subsided. That is to say, the loud voice in my head chanting, “Coffee, Coffee, Coffee” has now quieted to a whisper. That’s probably because the voice is tired and wishes it had some!
It is important to note that fasting MUST be accompanied by prayer, otherwise it turns into more of a challenge of willpower than anything else. Remember, there is a spiritual purpose to fasting. It is not to see how long you can go without eating or drinking anything, it is a way of sacrificing something material so that you can attune yourselves to what God is saying to you. And the only way to accomplish that, is to spend time in prayer, listening for His voice.
As a non-Muslim, how can I help my friends and colleagues during Ramadan?
You can help your Muslim colleagues by following a couple of simple rules:
- The Greeting: First of all you can wish Muslims a ‘Happy Ramadan’ by saying ‘Ramadan Kareem’ which is a greeting said at the beginning of the month of Ramadan and means ‘Blessed Ramadan’ or “Ramadan Mubarak (Moo-baa-rak)!” Ramadan’s Blessings to you! Just a ‘Happy Ramadan’ will be very much appreciated.
- Positive Reinforcement: Muslims aren’t forced to fast; they choose to fast and it’s a pretty joyous event. They have waited for this month all year , so you don’t need to feel sorry for anyone. Throughout it all, they maintain an ambiance of joy and gratitude for all that God has blessed us with.
- The Lunch Meeting: Don’t worry about eating in front of someone who is fasting (remember it is their choice) and part of the test. Muslims understand that life goes on as normal around them – they are used to it – and so do business meetings and lunch meetings. You do not have to feel obliged to not eat or drink in front of them. Acknowledging their fast would be appreciated.
- Bad breath: Those who are fasting often have bad breath. They know this and may well be keeping a distance from you, so you don’t need to point this out or mention it to others.
What does the word Ramadan mean?
Ramadan derives from the Arabic root ‘ramida’ meaning scorching heat or dryness. It is believed that the months name may refer to the heat of thirst or hunger.
I’ve heard about the 5 pillars of Islam but am unsure as to what they are?
Centuries back, Ramadan became an obligation for Muslims, becoming the third of the five pillars of Islam. The others are faith (Shahadah), prayer (Salah), charitable giving (Zakah) and the pilgrimage to Makkah (Haj).
A friend mentioned Laylat ul-Qadr- What is this?
Interestingly, one of the last few odd numbered days of the month is the Laylat ul-Qadr, the night of power/destiny. It is the holiest night of Ramadan. It’s also known as the longest night. Believed to be the night in which God first began revealing the Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad, it is a night of devoted prayer and blessing to those who pray. This one night is said to be holier than a thousand months.
What are the traditional foods to break the fast?
During Ramadan, Muslims eat a variety of foods. Some traditional ones include:
- Fig and lemon chicken
- Nutritional lentil soup
- Moroccan soup
- Beef meatballs
- Tomato sauce
- Fresh fig cake
- Rich semolina cookies
What happens at the end of Ramadan?
The month of Ramadan is declared over when the first crescent of the new moon appears in the sky. When it ends, the month of Shawwal begins. This is when the three day festival, ‘Eid ul Fitr’, the Festival of Fast breaking, takes place.. It is a happy occasion, marked by prayer, celebration, wearing new clothes and festive meals. It is also a time of forgiveness and making amends.
Muslims must also give to charity at the end of Ramadan, at the very least an amount calculated to feed one poor person in their region for a day. This is called ‘fitra’ and is a reminder of the suffering of others. Muslims buy gifts to share with their family and friends. They generously give to the poor and needy.
Due to the charitable-giving nature of the festival, in the Middle East, TV programmes encourage donations and people phone in with pledges in much the same way as the BBC with its Children In Need Day. The programmes show the running total of the cumulative amount, willing people to exceed the total of the previous year.
I’ve heard Muslims say the words ‘Ramadan Kareem’ and ‘Eid Mubarak’. What does this mean?
‘Ramadan Kareem’ is a greeting said at the beginning of the month of Ramadan and means ‘Blessed Ramadan’. ‘Eid Mubarak’ is a greeting said at the conclusion of the month as ‘Eid ul Fitr’ begins, meaning ‘May you Enjoy a Blessed Festival’.
Charitable Giving (Zakat) during Ramadan
As well as fasting, generosity and giving to charity is an integral part of Ramadan. Before the day of Eid, during the last few days of Ramadan, each Muslim family gives a determined amount as a donation to the poor. This donation is of actual food; rice, barley, dates, rice, etc. to ensure that the needy can have a holiday meal and participate in the celebration. This donation is known as sadaqah al-fitr (charity of fast-breaking).
Across the Muslim world, large amounts of money are raised for charity with money going to projects encompassing local charities, orphans aid and development projects, and gifts for needy families to help them celebrate the festival. It is important for Muslims to think of their brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering.
It’s impossible to know how much money is donated each year but Muslim Aid in the UK hope to raise £4m this year and the Qatar Charity (QC) in Qatar, has announced social and recreational charity projects totalling 23.5million QR (approx. £4m).
The Qatar Red Crescent has also launched their Ramadan charity campaign, using the theme, ‘thinking of others to make the world happy’. Projects will help those suffering in other countries, such as the Horn of Africa, Sudan, Darfur, the Balkans and Pakistan. The appeal for the Horn of Africa is poignant considering the current scale of disaster. The charity hope to raise around £3 million for this appeal, to fund food distribution, provide water and improve health and nutrition. They also want to deploy a medical team composed of public health specialists. Money has been raised to help many countries including the Red Crescent charities in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
But it’s not only money that is donated. In 2009, the Majid Al Futtaim shopping malls in the UAE collected 23,599 books and 26,537 bags full of clothes to go to the needy, in their ‘Make a Difference This Ramadan’ collection. Tens of thousands of families benefited from the initiative and the UAE Red Crescent society distributed the goods.
Additionally, Muslims in the UK are raising money for local charities. The Leeds Grand mosque has released its charity schedule, with an appeal for a different charity on each day of Ramadan. Charities include Family Relief, African Relief Fund, Kashmir Relief and Development Fund and the Muslim Deaf Group.
Other related articles you may be interested in:
For an insightful understanding of ‘The Significance of Fasting in the Month of Ramadan’ written by a Muslim, read the article on Khurram’s blog.
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