Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, starts on the 18th of June this year. I’m not an imam or a scholar, but I thought I’d put together a little FAQ about Ramadan for those of you who have Muslim friends or are interested in learning more for your own sakes. Here are some questions people ask me every year:
- Why do you do this, anyway?
Ramadan means a lot of things. Firstly, the month of fasting is meant to show our commitment to our faith and spirituality. Fasting is hard, y’all. It gets easier with age and experience, but it’s never effortless. When you get through the day to the Iftar meal, there’s a sense that you’ve achieved something, and that’s chicken soup for the soul.
Secondly, depriving ourselves of food and drink helps remind us how fortunate we are to enjoy those blessings, or baraka, in our everyday lives. Many Muslims donate food to charity during Ramadan for this reason. When we break our fast at the end of the day, we are reminded of how fortunate we are to be able to do so. Ramadan helps foster empathy and understanding, and hopefully also a more charitable spirit.
Thirdly, Ramadan is a time of contemplation and prayer. Many Muslims pray an extra prayer on top of the usual five, called Tarawih, as well as devoting more time to studying the Qur’an and partaking of other religious rituals. Like any religion’s holy season, Ramadan encourages us to renew our relationship with Allah through inward and outward shows of piety.
Fourthly, Ramadan helps us give up other vices. For example, smoking, which isn’t expressly forbidden to Muslims, is forbidden whilst fasting. Smokers can still indulge at night between fasts, but forcing yourself to go without all day helps some people to control their intake.
Finally, the state of piety and spirituality we are pushed to adopt during Ramadan makes us kinder and more generous in our interactions with others. I’m not saying I’m an angel during the month of fasting, but I try to think twice before I speak and watch the way I treat people.
I make resolutions on Ramadan each year: to fast the whole month (managed it once in 2013), to read the entire Qur’an (managed it once in 2007), to be a kinder person (managed 2000-and-never, but I’ll figure it out some day). I like Ramadan because it’s a religious clean slate, a chance to make myself a little more like the Muslim I’d like to be. Ramadan isn’t just about abstaining from food and drink (and sex and swearing and smoking and mean thoughts) – it’s about introspection, about being considerate of others, about a closer connection to Allah and the universe around us. It’s a welcome mat at the threshold of the path to happiness and peace.
- What do you give up? How long do you give it up?
Muslims give up food, drink, sex, profanity and whatever vices they might have (smoking, for example) between the hours of pre-dawn and sunset. In the summer back home, this translated to roughly 4AM to 6:30PM, or 14.5 hours. In winter, it was closer to 10 hours, and in some places, the fast is even shorter.
People often express their alarm when I say we’re not even allowed to drink water, but once you’re used to it, it’s really not so bad. If you’re too old, too young, pregnant, breastfeeding or sick, you don’t have to fast. Many people also don’t fast whilst travelling or doing strenuous work outside. You have the option of making up those missed days at another, more agreeable time of year if you so choose. And of course, you can eat and drink as much as you like at night. Many people have large parties in the evenings or take their evening meal with friends. It’s actually a pretty joyful time of year, because everyone eats and prays together.
- I could’ve sworn Ramadan was at a different time last year, wasn’t it?
Since the Muslim calendar is a lunar one, the date shifts backwards by 10 days every year, which means that every 36.5 years (or thereabouts), you’ll experience Ramadan at the same time.
This is a good thing, because this year I’m going to have to fast during the longest days of the year, and I really wouldn’t want to have to do that for the rest of my life. (I should’ve stayed in Australia until Ramadan moved into May, or at least April – it’s currently easy season in the southern hemisphere.) Ramadan lasts for one lunar cycle, which is no more than 30 days.
- Can I do Ramadan or is that offensive?
Sure, if you like – I mean, I’m not Catholic and I do Lent. Ramadan is actually a great time of year to visit your local mosque and learn a little more about Islam because people will always be in there praying and studying. And with all the night time festivities going on, you might even be invited to join in. Just don’t make the mistake of treating this like a diet or cleanse. Ramadan has deep religious significance to Muslims, so if you want to get involved, treat it with the same respect you reserve for any cultural tradition.
- What can I do to make your Ramadan easier?
Honestly, after twenty-four years of fasting in Australia, I’m pretty hard to faze. But a lot of Muslims prefer if you keep food away from them, refrain from any profanity in front of them, and try not to expose them to sexual or otherwise non-work-safe content. If you work with Muslim kids, make sure there are quiet, cool places for them to rest if they’re fasting. If you’re a manager or supervisor at your workplace, the same applies – can you put your Muslim employees to work on less physical tasks? (I personally love doing data entry during Ramadan because it’s time-consuming and keeps me indoors – just a thought.)
- How do I say “happy Ramadan” or wish you good luck?
“Ramadan Mubarak” means “blessed Ramadan” and is a generally nice thing to say to your Muslim friends. They’ll appreciate the thought, for sure, especially during the first few days when they’re still adjusting.
- When will Ramadan be over?
The end of Ramadan is called Eid ul-Fitr, and is a huge celebration that goes for three days in Muslim countries. (Back home in Australia, I just got the day off school.) We celebrate with food, prayer and lots of gifts for the young ones. Eid ul-Fitr happens at the end of one observed lunar cycle, so different groups of Muslims around the world celebrate it at slightly different times.
- I think I’ve got it now. Ramadan Mubarak!
Ramadan Mubarak to you too, friends.
jaythenerdkid is the nom de net of Aaminah Khan, a queer Muslim writer, activist, tutor, former medical student and terroriser-of-bigots for hire. When she’s not tweeting, tumblr-ing, blogging, arguing with conservatives on Facebook or being blocked by Richard Dawkins, Aaminah reads fantasy novels, plays video games, argues with her husband about Game of Thrones and gets angry that there aren’t more characters like Abed Nadir on television.