Muslims in my community and throughout the world are observing the month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. It is the 9th month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar and Muslims fast all day long- from sunrise to sunset. They abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and all other physical wants and desires during the fast. This year, the fasting hours are especially long which makes it very challenging.
Why fast? Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a time of self-restraint, reflection, self-discipline, and generosity. It is an act of obedience to God. Muslims believe that fasting is a time for atonement, forgiveness, and bringing the Ummah (the Muslim brotherhood & community) closer. Some see it as a spiritual as well as a physical cleansing. Muslims do not see fasting as a burden, but rather a blessing.
Who is exempt from fasting? Pregnant, breastfeeding, and menstruating women are exempt from fasting. Travelers, the sick, and those who are afflicted with mental illnesses are also exempt. Those with long-term and mental illnesses are not expected to make up the days they missed, but the others need to do so before the next Ramadan. Young children are not expected to fast.
How does a Muslim begin to discipline himself/herself to go an entire day without eating or drinking? My Muslim friends have a plan for this. Here’s what one couple did for their child: When he was about eight years old, they started to encourage him to wake up early to participate in the before sunrise meal and fast for just a couple of hours. Each year, they encouraged him to increase his fasting hours. By the time he was 15 years old, he was fasting the entire day.
The meals – The morning meal (before sunrise) is called the Suhoor and the evening meal (after sunset) is called the Iftar. This year, my friends in the U.S. wake up as early as 3:15 A.M to begin their day. Most eat a heavy meal, but that doesn’t last for the entire day. “Hunger pangs and a growling stomach increase toward the end of the day, but that is where the discipline of fasting comes in”, said one friend. She continued to say that the hunger helps her to understand the sufferings of the less fortunate and reminds her not to take for granted all that God has given her and her family.
Iftar can be a small family meal at home or at the Masjid (Mosque) with the congregation. The fast is usually broken with water and dates as Prophet Muhammed did during his time. This is followed by a delicious dinner! I have participated in Iftar with my friends several times and each time I was pleasantly surprised at the calmness of everyone as they went about serving each other. I get very impatient when I am hungry!
The culmination of the fast – the month of Ramadan culminates with the observance of Eid. It is a special day of prayer and good times with family and friends. There is a certain excitement in the air, especially for the children as they exchange gifts and wear their new clothes. It’s a day of reflection on the blessed month and looking forward to the next year’s Ramadan.