“Not even water?” Starting tomorrow, March 22, Muslims across the globe will celebrate Ramadan, the name of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Non-Muslims often associate Ramadan with fasting; those who observe it refrain from any food or drinks — including water — between sunrise and sunset. But the month isn’t about depriving oneself. Instead, those who observe it say in abstaining from foods, drink and other things, they gain patience, humility and gratitude. Ramadan is different for everyone who celebrates it.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and depends on the sightings of the crescent moon. Until the crescent moon appears again, Muslims will fast — it lasts between 29 to 30 days.
“Ramadan was started during the time of the prophet Muhammad, more than 1400 years ago. God ordered Muslims to fast for 30 days during the month,” says Imam Fadhel Alahlani of Imam-Al Khoei Islamic Center of New York.
During the time of fasting, observers refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having intercourse. At sunset each day, the fast is broken with a meal called iftar. Traditionally, families will break their fast with dried dates, as they believe that is how the prophet Muhammad broke his.
During Ramadan, there are some special, more pious days. For example, the nights from March 21 to March 29 are observed differently.
“During those nights we believe that God writes for us everything that will happen in our life during the upcoming year,” says Mirum Zafar, senior community outreach and enrollment coordinator at the Arab-American Family Support Center. “We pray the entire night just to have a better year. During those nights people will have a very fancy Iftar.”
Ramadan culminates with Eid ul-Fitr, which is the first day of the next month in the Islamic calendar, and the culmination of a month of fasting. Eid is a time when people put on nice clothing, gather and share food.
How does fasting work?
“The main condition is that people can fast only if they can do so without physically hurting him or themselves. People will begin fasting when they mature, for girls it’s usually at 9 years old, while for boys it is at 15,” Alahlani says. “If a person is sick, they should not. If a lady is pregnant or breastfeeding and fasting will affect her or her baby badly she cannot fast.”
Women who have their period and people with medical conditions do not have to fast either, and people can make up for the time they did not fast later in the year.
“A lot of people think Ramadan is like, we wake up and we don’t eat food but we drink water and it’s sort of like intermittent fasting but it is not. Ramadan is not just fasting for the body. It’s not like we can have only fruits and vegetables, or we can’t have meat or we don’t eat but we drink water — it’s none of that,” Zafar says. “You are detoxing both your soul and your body.”
Seeran Enayetullah, community outreach and enrollment coordinator at the Arab-American Family Support Center often gets questions regarding the strictness of fasting during Ramadan.
“[Sometimes people say] ‘You can just break it and have a little water.’ But I like the idea of it being a spiritual detox. It’s not about your community or your family knowing you broke the fast. It’s about yourself,” he says.
A spiritual detox
The experience of fasting is different for each person doing it. Zafar likes to think about it as a time when she can truly practice patience.
“Patience should be observed in a way that when you fast during Ramadan, you know that no matter how thirsty or hungry you are, when the sun sets, you will have something to eat and drink,” she says. “[It is a reminder] that no matter how hard or difficult your life is now, it always comes to a place where it is comfortable or when happiness is going to be there.”
For other people like Enayetullah, Ramadan is a time when he can check his privilege and to be grateful for the things he has.
“[During the fast] I might be ‘suffering’ during the day time, but there are people out there who have less than you and will not be able to break their fast with as much food as you. They may not be able to drink beverages or have a nutritious pre-dawn meal,” he says, “For me, it is very much a time to check my privilege and just zoom out for a bit, realize where I am and where I stand in the world.”
For a religious leader like Imam Al Ahlan Ramadan is a time to connect with other devotees and be closer to God.
“To me it is an opportunity to be closer to God by fasting. I will feel like he is with me, 24 hours a day, observing. I cannot violate the fasting, but I observe God with this practice,” he says. “As far as my community members, it is also an opportunity for me to explain the rules and regulations to them. [I want to help them] correct their lives.”
For many others Ramadan is a time to practice purity, and purify their souls. Zafar has found that many Muslims are able to strengthen their relationship with God and practice self-discipline and self-sacrifice. She has also seen non-Muslims participate in fasting to learn the same virtues as well.
“In the past I’ve had Christian friends who have fasted with me because they said it’s disciplined for them. It makes it really nice to be able to connect with their Muslim friends as well,” she says.
How to Help:
“There are several Muslims who do not have the means to fast as efficiently as we do or who don’t have the resources to have a proper Suhoor and nutritious, nutritious Iftaar,” says Zafar.
A report done by the Arab-American Family Support Center mentions a lack of halal safe options in food pantries.( halal food must be free of alcohol, pork and pork by-products, and meat must be slaughtered and processed in accordance with Islamic dietary laws.) During Ramadan, consider donating halal options to your local food pantry. There is also a halal-specific food pantry located at 35-13 Ave in Astoria, which accepts donations via Venmo. The Arab-American Family Support Center hosts several food distributions throughout the year, including some during Ramadan. You can support the work it does here.