Ramadan Explained: Understanding the Muslim Holy Month
Yesterday evening marked the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, introspection, and prayer. Ramadan will be observed by most of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and will end on July 5.
Common perception of Ramadan is that it involves enormous amounts of painstaking fasting--which doesn’t sound fun. But in reality, it’s much more than that. It’s ultimately a joyful celebration of a rich history that goes back several millennia.
So, what exactly is Ramadan?
The word Ramadan comes from the Arabic word ‘ramida’, meaning scorching heat or dryness. Across the world, Ramadan is also known as Ramazan, Ramzan, Ramadhan, or Ramathan. It lasts for 29-30 days based on the visual sighting of the crescent moon.
According to Islamic faith it is believed that, around 610 AD, Prophet Muhammad was chosen by God to act as a messenger to humankind, spreading God’s teachings. The Prophet received revelations from Allah, the Islamic god, and these revelations were compiled into the holy book known as the Quran.
Ramadan is a commemoration of the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad.
It is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims and celebrates the very origin of Islam.
Yes, it involves a considerable amount of fasting.
Fasting during Ramadan is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam (the other pillars are faith, prayer, charity, and pilgrimage to Mecca).
But that doesn’t mean that 1.6 billion people around the world don’t eat for an entire month.
It is obligatory for all healthy and able Muslims who have reached puberty to fast from dawn to dusk each day of Ramadan. However, there are exceptions, like for the sick and the elderly, travelers, diabetic patients, menstruating or pregnant women, women who are nursing, and young children.
Fasting Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking liquids, smoking, and engaging in sexual activity.
Each day, there is a pre-dawn meal called Suhoor. The fast starts at dawn and continues till dusk, after which it is broken with a meal called Iftar. Iftars are often elaborate feasts, bringing together friends and family.
While fasting Muslims sometimes experience marginal weight loss during this period, Ramadan is mostly associated with weight gain due to the heavy Iftar meals every evening. Any weight lost is also usually regained later, which is why some Muslims now prefer small, healthy meals to the traditional Iftar feasts.
before iftar: too hungry to do anything— halal aya (@maIiksqueen) June 6, 2016
after iftar: too full to do anything
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are expected to continue going to work or to school, and to take care of their usual activities. However, many Muslim countries reduce working hours during this month to accommodate the potential weakness some may feel.
It is believed that the spiritual rewards for fasting are multiplied during this month. There are also countless health benefits that come from fasting.
But Ramadan isn’t just about fasting.
It gets harder than not eating food and drinking water--but every challenge is more than made up for in rewards.
Most importantly, Ramadan is a spiritual cleanse of the body, mind, and soul. It is about compassion, honesty, and kindness.
Non-Muslims or Muslims unable to fast are welcome to partake in the festivities at the Iftar feasts.
Muslims are instructed to refrain from any sinful behaviour that might negate the rewards of fasting. These include gossipping, cursing, impure thoughts, altercation, and fighting. While it sounds simple, training your mind to avoid negativity can be harder than training it to not crave water and food.
They are also encouraged to be more charitable during this month by feeding the poor and helping the less fortunate. Islamic faith holds that a fixed percentage of personal savings should be given to the poor. Since all good deeds are said to be rewarded even more during the month of Ramadan, many people choose to donate their savings during this period. Apart from this fixed percentage, some also choose to give a separate portion of ‘sadaqah’, or voluntary charity, during Ramadan.
The idea is to cultivate a sense of discipline and a moral code which Muslims can continue to follow the rest of the year.
So why is there confusion every year about when Ramadan starts?
The dates of Islamic festivals are based on the Islamic lunar calendar. Ramadan is the 9th month of the 12-month Islamic calendar.
Since it is based on the phases of the moon, Ramadan doesn’t start on the same day every year.
The Islamic lunar calendar has 354 days, 11 days lesser than the Gregorian calendar that has 365 days. So, the beginning of Ramadan moves back by 11 days each year. This means that Ramadan has no fixed season, which, in turn, has a large impact on how Muslims around the world experience it.
It’s harder to fast in the summer than it is in the winter, especially in hot Muslim countries in Asia and Africa. In northern European countries like Norway and Sweden, summer fasts can sometimes last 20 hours or more, since that’s how long summer days are.
Winter days are shorter, so the fast doesn’t last as long. It’s also easier to refrain from drinking water in the winter since temperatures are cooler.
Ramadan is not a month in which Muslims want others to feel bad for them. While empathy and compassion are always welcome, it is important to remember that Ramadan is a holy period of festivities. It’s a way of reaching a spiritual plane, benefiting from introspection, and bringing friends and family together.
Each day involves waking up before dawn to eat a hearty meal that will provide energy to ride out the day. After fasting till dusk, the fast is often broken by eating dates before the start of the Iftar meal, which is usually a lavish spread that is eaten together with relatives, neighbours, and friends. The festivities of the Iftar often continue until the break of dawn the next day. Mosques also hold special night prayers throughout the month of Ramadan.
Some days are especially filled with festivity.
Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, is considered the holiest night of the year. It is believed to have occurred on an odd-numbered night during the last 10 days of Ramadan.
It is said that the Prophet stated that this night was better than “one thousand months of proper worship”.
But it doesn’t stop there.
The end of Ramadan marks the onset of the three-day giant celebration called Eid al-Fitr (literally the ‘festival of breaking of the fast’). Eid al-Fitr is declared after another crescent new moon has been sighted.
Eid is the single day when Muslims are actually not allowed to fast.
Special Eid prayers are held and money is distributed to the poor. People wear new, festive clothes, and gifts called Eidi, mostly cash, are exchanged amongst each other.
It’s also known as the sweet Eid, which means that there are delectable desserts and delicious sweets all around to celebrate the end of the month of self-control and introspection.
On the first day of Ramadan today, here’s wishing Muslims across the world a very happy, successful, gainful, and enlightening month!