Ramadan: why Muslims are fasting this month

Ramadan: why Muslims are fasting this month


Muslims gather around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Photo: Reuters

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is upon us - which started Monday. Fasting during the day throughout Ramadan is an important part of Islam. Many are likely to take part in the fast, which falls during some of the longest, hottest days of the year.

The Koran, which Islam teaches is the word of God, came to the prophet Muhammad over the course of his lifetime, but started during the lunar month of Ramadan.

Over the course of the month, Muslims are told to read the entire Koran - or about one-30th each night. And from dawn until dusk, for the 29 or 30 days of the month, to abstain from eating, drinking "and from the feeding of their passions - whether those passions are road rage or romance," said Johari Abdul-Malik, a US imam. In other words: you’re supposed to be extra good during this holiest of months.

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The Koran says: "O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God."

"The word 'sowm' [the Arabic term for fasting] actually means 'to stop,'" says Suhaib Webb, another US imam, who often uses social media to answer questions about his religion.

To Webb, fasting poses an opportunity for broader change. People think, "If I can avoid stuff this month, I can do it the rest of the year," he said. "You’ll find a lot of people quit smoking in Ramadan." Others get in shape.

"It’s a great reminder of what we have the potential to do if we really try," Webb says.

Britain's National Health Service devotes an entire webpage to staying healthy during Ramadan. The Islamic Society of North America recently advised its Twitter followers how to be more conscious of environmental protection, too.

A Muslim worshipper reads the Koran, Islam's holy book.
Photo: AFP

What about the food?

Let’s be honest: Ramadan also has a reputation as a month of feasting, and there are some people who definitely don’t lose weight.

For many, Ramadan after sundown is just as social as it is religious. Families and friends get together for elaborate iftar meals to break their fasts at sundown. And although iftar often starts with water and dates - which are easy on an empty stomach - it is also a popular time for big dinner parties and lots of cooking. It’s an opportunity for families to showcase "what they consider their national dish," Abdul-Malik said. (And then there are other nights when iftar is Pizza Hut delivery or McDonald’s after work. After all, it’s a month-long holiday.)

The morning meal, or suhoor, which comes just before dawn - or as the Koran instructs, before "you can discern the white streak of dawn against the blackness of the night" - is a more intimate family affair. Although children are not required to fast, some enjoy the ritual of getting up while it’s dark to eat with their parents.

Ramadan feels different you’re in a Muslim majority country

In Egypt, colourful tent fabric appears outside mosques and restaurants, along pavements and in alleys, inviting the poor - or anyone - to gather at communal tables for a free meal to break the fast.

Zaid Shakir, an Islamic scholar in the US, spent several Ramadans in Syria in the '90s, and remembers how the streets of Damascus would go silent just before sundown. "You would not find a single individual on the street. Even the dogs disappeared," he said. "It was amazing. I think it was indicative of how Ramadan takes over an entire society."

In the US, Muslims head into their Ramadan fast with the knowledge that most of those around them will not be partaking - and may even be oblivious to the holiday.

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But the imams say that can be a good thing. "I enjoy Ramadan in America because America doesn’t stop for it, which is kind of cool because you have to juggle the material and immaterial," Webb said.

Disciplining yourself to fast in spite of your everyday routines, temptations and responsibilities is part of the point: "When you’ve got to deal with your road rage, you’ve got to get kids ready for school, you’ve got to deal with Islamophobia - and the Muslim community really does feel like it’s under a microscope - it’s kind of a good time to fast."

Not everyone has to fast (and not everyone does)

There are plenty of Muslims who choose not to fast.

But the Koran also excuses those who are sick or travelling. Generally, that includes women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people who require daily heart or diabetes medication, children and the elderly; people on airplanes, trains or car rides - or simply out of town.

For those who can’t fast, the Koran says: "God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship." But if they are able, they are expected to make up their missed fasting days later in the year.

Ramadan is a time when imams get bombarded with questions about where to go to pray (a common query for new immigrants), how best to balance religious obligations with a fast-paced life, or family members who don’t fast.

A Muslim prays before breaking his fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan at a mosque in Pakistan.
Photo: AP

A huge part of Ramadan is giving to the poor

According to the Koran, the prophet Muhammad was the most generous during this month. It is common for Muslim charity efforts to go into overdrive during Ramadan. Mosques and wealthy individuals offer free meals to the poor and carry out volunteer work.

Ramadan gives Muslims an opportunity to reflect "upon our responsibilities toward those who are less fortunate than ourselves," Shakir said.

Ramadan will start this year the same way it always does: with the first confirmed sighting of a new moon. Sometimes clouds or smog might get in the way, and experts disagree, so sometimes Ramadan starts on different days in different countries. Scholars and religious leaders tend to make the call.

Ramadan will end with the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, a day of feasting and celebration to mark the end of the fast.

Wish someone a good Ramadan with: "Ramadan Mubarak," which means "a blessed Ramadan" or "Ramadan karim" - a "noble" or honourable Ramadan.


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