Answering some of the most-asked questions about Ramadan

This year, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins on Tuesday, April 13, and even in the midst of a global pandemic, the vast majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims will observe it in some way.

Which means that there's a good chance you might encounter someone who will be celebrating, fasting, and engaging in all sorts of other activities that are unique to the holy month.

But, what is Ramadan, exactly? Why do Muslims fast? And how can I support my Muslim friends during this month?

Don’t worry, I've got you covered: Here are some answers to the most common questions about Ramadan.

What exactly is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is based on a 12 month lunar year of approximately 354 days. Ramadan is considered one of the holiest months of the year for Muslims. During Ramadan, Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Qur’an by fasting during the sunlit hours in order to draw closer to God and cultivate self-control, gratitude, and compassion for the less fortunate. Ramadan is a month of intense spiritual rejuvenation with a heightened focus on devotion, during which Muslims spend extra time reading the Qur’an and performing special prayers.

How does fasting work?

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating any food or drinking any liquids from dawn to sunset. Yes, not even water! Muslims are also supposed to try to curb negative thoughts and emotions like jealousy and anger, and even lesser things like swearing, complaining, and gossiping, during the month. Some people may also choose to give up or limit activities like listening to music and watching television, often in favor of listening to recitations of the Quran.

What is the purpose of fasting?

There are many reasons as to why Muslims fast. Muslims welcome Ramadan as an opportunity for self-reflection, and spiritual improvement, and as a means to grow in moral excellence. The ultimate goal of fasting is gaining greater God-consciousness, in Arabic, taqwa, signifying a state of constant awareness of God. From this awareness a person should gain discipline, self-restraint and a greater incentive to do good and avoid wrong.

Does everyone have to fast?

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars — or duties — of Islam, along with the testimony of faith, prayer, charitable giving, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Generally, all Muslims who have reached puberty are obliged to fast. However, for people in situations where fasting would be a hardship, they are exempted from fasting. This includes anyone who is sick or traveling; women who are pregnant, nursing, or menstruating; or older people who are too weak or ill to fast. Anyone who is exempted must make up the fast later in the year, except for those who cannot fast due to age or chronic illness. Instead, they can feed a poor person for every day of fasting they miss.

What are the key Ramadan traditions?

Each day’s fast is typically broken by eating dates, which follows the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. After this, people will pray Maghrib - one of the five daily prayers - and then sit down to eat. Families and friends usually gather to break their fasts and spend the night together. People usually have decorations all over their houses. Many mosques around the world host daily community dinners where Muslims can break their fast together. In many Middle Eastern countries, Ramadan is the prime time for the year's best TV series, showcasing the most dramatic storylines and top celebrities, capitalising on the time people spend waiting for iftar. However, many people choose the holy month to reduce the hours spent on entertainment, preferring instead to focus on studying the Quran.

What happens at the end of Ramadan?

At the end of Ramadan there’s a big three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. It's kind of like the Muslim version of Christmas, in the sense that it's a religious holiday where everyone comes together for big meals with family and friends, exchanges presents, and generally has a lovely time. In 2021, the holiday will likely be held on May 13th. Children traditionally receive new clothes, money or gifts from parents, relatives and friends. A special prayer is held the morning of Eid day, followed by a community celebration usually in a park or large hall. Food, games and presents for children are important parts of the festivities, as friends and family spend the day socializing, eating and reuniting with old friends.

How can I support my Muslim friends during this month?

Most Muslims in America, myself included, don't expect the non-Muslims around us to radically change their behavior to accommodate our fasts during Ramadan. It is totally okay if you drink or eat in front of us, we’re pretty much used to it. Some non-Muslims choose to fast alongside their friends to show support, but that is not necessary at all. It’s fine if you want to try fasting, but don’t ever feel like you need to stop eating or drinking just because you’re surrounded by people who are fasting. Some ways you can show support to your Muslim friends is by wishing them a blessed Ramadan or Eid, or just checking up on them, ask them how Ramadan is going for them. Even something as simple as that means a lot to us!

Want to see your work in the Magazine?

© 2021 Lincoln Magazine