Everything You Need to Know About the Islamic Month of Ramadan
April is known as the month Easter comes knocking on our doorsteps. But this year, alongside the Easter eggs and bunny toys, stores will begin stocking dates and Rooh Afza to mark the start of Ramadan. The Muslim holy month is observed by 1.6 billion people around the world and is the holiest time in the Islamic calendar year.
There’s a good chance that someone you know — a friend, a coworker, a neighbour — will be celebrating and fasting, and you most likely have questions.
What is Ramadan? Why do Muslims fast? How should you behave in front of your Muslim friends throughout the month? And, the most common of all, not even water!?
As a Muslim and someone who has been fasting for a long time now, I’m here to make sure you’re up to speed.
What Is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said, “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”
It was during this month that Muslims believe God revealed the first verses of the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, to Prophet Muhammad, on Laylat al-Qadr (The Night of Power in English).
Throughout the entire month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and use that time to practice spiritual discipline. They increase the amount of prayer, donate to charity, feed those less fortunate, read the Quran, and generally up their good deeds.
But it’s also a time when we connect with family and friends. Our day starts before dawn when we have a quick bite to eat during Suhoor — the meal you have before you begin your fast. And then once the sun sets, we feast during Iftar.
We also use that time to meet our loved ones at the local mosque, when we go for prayers. The entire month of Ramadan is a beautiful time, and each year, we Muslims come out of it with better habits and an increased appreciation for the smaller things in life.
How Does Fasting Work?
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with the testimony of faith, prayer, charitable giving and performing Hajj. Of course, there are those that are exempt, such as young children and the elderly, those who are ill, pregnant or nursing, menstruating and travelling.
The reason we fast is to remind us of our dependence on God. It also makes us more compassionate, because while we refrain from eating and drinking, it helps us acknowledge those who are less fortunate. The discipline we gain by the end of the month is unparalleled, and you feel the difference physically and mentally.
When we fast, we’re required to abstain from eating any food, drinking any liquids (yes, even water), chewing gum, smoking cigarettes or shisha, taking medication and engaging in any sexual activity. If for whatever reason, someone breaks their fast in the middle of the day intentionally, they can then make up for it by fasting later in the year.
During the month, Muslims must also refrain from swearing, gossiping, feeling negative emotions such as jealousy and anger and, overall, need to work on the development of their character.
What Does a Typical Day During Ramadan Look Like?
This question is slightly more complicated to answer. For someone like me who works a full-time job, I usually wake up for Suhoor, eat and pray Fajr (the prayer before sunrise) and start to get ready for work. If I’m working from home I’ll try and squeeze in some more sleep, but if I’m heading into the office then I’ll stay up and read the Quran before it’s time to leave.
Muslims are not supposed to avoid work, school or any other day-to-day commitments simply because they’re fasting. However, in Muslim countries, many businesses and institutions reduce their hours and close entirely to make it easier for others.
If I’m in the office during the day, I find a place such as a meeting room or somewhere quiet and private to pray Zuhr (the second prayer of the day that takes place around noon) and Asr (the third prayer of the day) and then usually, I’ll have to break my fast in the office or on the train back home because Maghrib (the “sunset prayer” and the moment we can break our fast) usually happens around that time.
However, on a normal day, Muslims will break their fast with a table full of delicious food, sometimes surrounded by those they love most. They will then head to the mosque for Isha (the evening prayer) and a special prayer that’s recited only during the month of Ramadan called Taraweeh.
Before going to bed, people will usually eat dinner and prepare for the next day.
Why Is Ramadan on a Different Date Every Year?
Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon. This means, 12 months on an Islamic calendar add up to approximately 354 days. That’s 11 days shorter than the standard Gregorian calendar.
The Islamic lunar calendar moves backwards about 11 days every year, meaning Ramadan also starts 11 days earlier than the year before. This makes a huge impact on how people experience the holy month. When Ramadan falls in winter, the days are shorter and so are our fasts. But when it comes around in summer, it can be a lot more difficult.
How Should I Act Around My Muslim Friends?
The general consensus is that it should be with respect. I and many of my fellow Muslims love it when people ask questions, as long as the intention is to genuinely learn.
As far as eating and drinking, don’t stop yourself from digging into your lunch in front of your Muslim friends. We don’t expect anyone to cater to us, and we’re so accustomed to fasting that, contrary to popular belief, we’re not salivating at the sight of food as some people think.
Also, feel free to say “Happy Ramadan!” To your Muslim friends, there’s nothing we love more than those around us acknowledging this special time.
Oh, and please don’t ask: “You can’t even drink water!?” It’s annoying.
What Happens After Ramadan?
Eid al-Fitr! One of the most exciting days of the year, or to be more specific, three days. Eid al-Fitr makes the end of Ramadan and is celebrated by eating A LOT of food, visiting friends and family and dressing in your best outfit.
The celebration also sees Muslims donate money to charity and give gifts to one another, as they thank God for allowing them to see another month of Ramadan.
You may hear or see Muslims saying “Eid Mubarak” and that simply means, “Happy Eid”.
Ramadan may sound difficult to non-Muslims, and at times, it isn’t easy. But each year, billions of people look forward to the sacred month, because it truly is a time where we feel content.