Observant Muslims are currently in the midst of Ramadan when all physically mature and healthy Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. They do not eat or drink anything during those hours. They don’t even chew gum unless it is flavorless wax. Those who normally smoke cigarettes abstain from smoking. In addition, no form of sexual contact takes place. In some ways, Ramadan is comparable to the season of Lent, which some branches of Christianity observe leading up to Easter Sunday.
Ramadan occurs each year during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Because the lunar calendar changes each year, the dates when Ramadan is observed change each year. Some years Ramadan takes place during the winter when the sun rises later and sets earlier, which decreases the amount of time spent fasting. Because the temperatures are normally cooler, the urge to drink and replenish liquids is not quite as strong. However, other years, Ramadan occurs during the summer when the sun rises earlier and sets later and the temperatures are hotter. It is more of an act of willpower to observe Ramadan during the summer months.
I am not a Muslim, but I have close friends who are. If you have never tried to go without eating or drinking (or smoking) for many hours every day for 30 consecutive days, you can only imagine what fortitude, courage and dedication is required. Have you ever been on a diet and tried to cut down on the amount of sweets or fried foods that you eat? Most of us find that pretty difficult to do. Now imagine eliminating not only the things that you especially enjoy, but all foods and liquids for large chunks of the day. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but the Muslims that I know willingly do this in order to take part in Ramadan.
What is the purpose of this self-sacrifice? Observant Muslims, like adherents of other faiths, view fasting as a deeply personal way of worshiping God. Instead of thinking only of themselves and their desires, they focus on their relationship with God and reflect on whether they have been living their lives in accordance with his instructions. They try to be pure and refrain from obscene language and actions. Being hungry and thirsty reminds them of those around the world who face daily struggles to obtain clean drinking water and adequate food. It generates a compassion for the less fortunate. In a very personal way, it helps them appreciate what they have and to be mindful of how they use their possessions.
Of course, people who are mentally or physically ill, children who are not considered physically mature, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, elderly people who are weak, and people who are traveling are not expected to fast and risk damaging their own health. However, if they have the financial means to do so, it is common for those not fasting to donate the amount of money for a day’s meals or donate the actual meal itself to a needy person.
When the new moon is sighted, Ramadan is over. The day is celebrated as the festival of fast-breaking, Eid ul-Fitr. Families dress in their best clothes and go to their mosque for services and prayers followed by celebrations, festive meals, and the giving of gifts, especially to children. However, just as importantly, they will have contributed toward giving a meal (or a cash equivalent) to a needy person in order to ensure that no one is lacking.
The Muslims whom I know are, like most people, focused on their families. They want their loved ones to be safe, happy and healthy. They want to have interesting jobs or careers that provide for them financially. They enjoy shopping, playing sports or video games, dining out, walking in parks, and using computers and new technologies. They are pleased to answer questions about Islam and to explain their beliefs, but do not feel the need to convert everyone or force other people to think and behave as they do.
I sometimes say, “Happy Ramadan” to my Muslim friends although it would be more appropriate to say, “I hope that you are having a blessed and meaningful Ramadan and that it is always safe for you to practice your faith in the U.S.”
A. J. Ralls resides in Columbia and enjoys history and traveling.