The month of Ramadan is here and over 1 billion Muslims in Ghana and around the world are participating in what is regarded as the holiest month of Islam. Each year I get about the same questions from non-Muslims: How many days do you fast for? Can you drink water? Does every Muslim have to fast? When do you break your fast? Do you still go to school and work? Why do you fast? Is fasting the same across the world? This post is to offer some insight into Ramadan and why fasting is such a big deal to Muslims.
What is Ramadan and why is it important?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The Islamic calendar is lunar – meaning it is based on the moon’s phases (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar which is solar). Hence, the start of Ramadan depends on when the new crescent moon is sighted. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, it can be 10 or 11 days shorter than the 12-month calendar – and so the month of Ramadan seems to ‘migrate’ and happens at different points of the Gregorian calendar from year to year. Muslims consider Ramadan holy because we believe the Holy Qu’ran – God’s words which form the foundation of Islam – was revealed during Ramadan. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the core pillars of Islam which Muslims practice and hence a very important aspect of Islam alongside testimony of faith (shahada), the five daily prayers (salat), giving charity (zakat), and the Hajj pilgrimage.
How is fasting conducted in Islam?
Muslims fast throughout the month of Ramadan. That could either be 29 days or 30 days, depending on the sighting of the new moon. Contrary to what some people think, we do not go the entire 29 or 30 days without a morsel of food or a drop of water. Allah is merciful, and understands that our bodies probably would not be able to sustain itself that long (He is after-all, the architect, no?). Instead, we follow a system to give our bodies the rest and nutrition it needs.
Suhoor – Pre-Dawn Meal
Each day of fasting starts with a morning/ pre-dawn meal known as the “suhoor”. Many families have different kinds of food during the suhoor, but with my family back in Ghana, we would usually have something slightly heavy like jollof rice, rice balls or tuozaafi, and then, there was also the option of having ‘breakfast’ – fried egg sandwich with tea etc. The trick here is to monitor yourself. I for instance cannot have too much food else I get hungry quicker during the course of the day. Too little food, and you’ll probably be weak. So essentially, Ramadan helps us attune ourselves to the unique needs of our individual bodies; something that we tend to ignore on a day-to-day.Ramadan helps us attune ourselves to the unique needs of our individual bodies; something that we tend to ignore in general. - @jabdulai Click To Tweet
In Ghana, we fast from the break of dawn around 5:00am with the first prayer “fajr” till sunset around 6:00pm marked by the fourth prayer “maghrib”. Since Ghana lies on the equator, these hours are generally standard all year round. In countries like the USA however, the duration of fast depends on the time of year. In the summer there are longer days and shorter nights – meaning a little over 12 hours of fast. When Ramadan falls in the winter, there are shorter days, hence fewer hours to fast. During the daylight hours no food or water must be consumed.
Iftar – Evening Meal to Break Fast
The evening meal for breaking the fast is known as the “iftar”. Some of the prominent food that features during this time include: water (of course! It’s usually the first thing I go for), dates (it is actually recommended that a fast be broken with dates first, then water. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) broke his fast with dates), oranges, pawpaw, apples (fruits in general). Some households also have local drinks, porridges, like Hausa koko (millet porridge) and koose (bean cakes). Right after breaking the fast, the Maghrib prayer usually commences, and then there’s dinner. Iftar is supposed to be a light meal — hence the need to restrain oneself from consuming a lot too quickly.
Do you still cook during Ramadan? Must everyone fast?
Yes, people still cook during Ramadan. If your household has children, the elderly, sick persons, etc, they will most likely not be fasting, hence the need to cook. However, I would say the volume of cooking during the hours of the fast tends to be lower. If you live alone, like I do, then most likely there won’t be any cooking at all. lol. Except of course, if you have absolutely nothing in the fridge and need to rustle up some grub. How do people cook? Well, that’s where measuring apparatus comes in handy. Or in the case of most Ghanaian women I know, the ever sharp internal guesstimate tool. Alternatively, if there are members of the family who are not fasting, they can taste a meal to make sure it has the right quantities of salt etc.
Fasting is contingent on all Muslims except children (generally below the age of 12), old people, sick people, people who are travelling, women who are on their period, etc. In the case of children, they can start to learn how to fast, but they are not required to do it in the proper manner. For instance, when I was 13 years old and fasting, my little sister who is 4 years younger than me, hence 9 at the time, would join us in suhoor, fast until midday, take a break (aka eat something lol), and “continue” her fast until sunset when we all broke the fast with the iftar meal. It’s pretty much the same as having breakfast (suhoor), lunch (her break) and dinner..or should I say pre-dinner…iftar. As each year progressed, she pushed back when she took her ‘break’ until she was mature enough to fast the entire period. Talk about ingenuity!
How is fasting in Islam different?
There are quite a number of similarities between Islam and Christianity. Muslims aren’t the only ones who fast or are encouraged to fast. Jesus Christ (“Isa” in Arabic) fasted for 40 days and 40 nights while he was in the desert, and this is often referred to as “The Temptation of Christ” in Christianity. Many of my Christian friends in college would fast for a number of weeks or days. If I remember correctly, it was usually during the Spring Semester and sometime close to the Easter celebrations. One thing that I found interesting was the fact that they didn’t necessarily stop consuming food and drink altogether, like we do during Ramadan, but rather, each person could decide what they would restrict/fast from. So some people would fast from watching TV, some would fast from listening to secular music, from clubbing, some would even fast from facebook (yes, facebook). Others would fast from eating meat, some would choose to have just fruits and veggies etc. It was quite interesting, and I think it holds the same spirit as Ramadan: to teach ourselves self-restraint and nurture our spiritual relationship with God.
Do you still work and/or go to school during Ramadan? How do you stay productive?
Yes, we basically do everything we’d normally do. I started fasting when I was in primary school I believe, and I would still go to school, participate in class, etc. In boarding school (high school) it was much harder to fast what with all the rules and regulations (for one thing, you had to eat at least one spoonful of food in the dining hall so as to show appreciation for the person who cooked it), but I still fasted nevertheless. I had a whole bunch of extracurricular activities including basketball, but I would still go and practice. It might sound impossible, but it’s amazing how adaptable the human body and mind are. The initial days of Ramadan tend to be the hardest as you’re breaking routine, but after a while, you get used to it and it goes swimmingly from there.
With regards to work – yes, people still work during Ramadan. My parents both went to work, and I’m sure fulfilled what obligations they had to. In college, I had to go to both class AND work, as many of my fellow Muslim classmates had to, and we all did it. More recently, I worked on a food documentary while fasting. Once again, the trick for getting through a fast is understanding your body and your limits. Neither myself nor my classmates once fainted, but I guess that’s because we knew ourselves well enough. If I had a tennis or dance class for instance, I would let the professor know that it was Ramadan so I wouldn’t be able to exert myself as I normally did. And the beautiful thing is, people understand. Well, if they are open and respectful of religion in general that is.The trick for getting through a fast is understanding yourself, your body and your limits. - @jabdulai Click To Tweet
What else do you do during Ramadan – besides fasting – and why do you do it?
Ramadan is a month of reflection and meditation. Many Muslims use this period to evaluate themselves and their lives, to pray for forgiveness of past sins, to thank Allah, and to put their fears, concerns, hopes before Him. It is also encouraged that Muslims give charity (Zakat) to the poor and read the Holy Quran more during this month. As mentioned, the Holy Qu’ran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) during Ramadan. One another thing which is prominent during Ramadan is prayer. Generally Muslims pray five times a day, and can offer supplicatory prayers if they are so inclined. During Ramadan, there are a set of special prayers (Taraweeh) that many participate in. Why all this praying? Because it is believed that all past sins will be forgiven if a Muslim observes Ramadan in the recommended manner. Ramadan brings with it immense blessings, but the last ten days are extremely special because of Laylatul Qadr – the “Night of Power”; a which is regarded as blessed and better than 1000 months of worship. Many Muslims stay up to pray, read the Quran and meditate during the final ten days so as to receive those blessings.
Is there a difference in observing Ramadan around the world – say in Ghana and in the US?
Personally, yes there is. The main difference for me while fasting in the USA is the element of family and community. Ramadan is easier to observe when you have the support of other Muslims. At home, practically everyone in my family would be fasting. While at college, it was only the Muslim community who would fast, and we were scattered all over campus. If you were lucky and had one other Muslim in your dorm, you could head out together (in the blistering cold, as was the case) to the Religious house or the Halal kitchen area to observe the suhoor. The great thing though, is the fact that Muslims generally do regard one another as brothers and sisters, so wherever you are in the world (even if you’re not with blood relatives), you will probably get a warm invitation from a fellow Muslim to observe Ramadan or break fast (iftar).
What do ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ and ‘Ramadan Kareem’ mean and why do people say it?
Ramadan Mubarak means ‘(have a) blessed Ramadan’ while Ramadan Kareem means ‘(have a) generous Ramadan’ – both in Arabic. Muslims say it to wish each other a fulfilling Ramadan – however non-Muslims can certainly use it to wish their Muslims friends, colleagues, family and so on a great month of fasting and reflection. Since we’re here – Alhamdulilah means ‘all praise and thanks to Allah’, Subhan Allah means “Glory be to Allah”, Allahu Akbar means ‘Allah is Great’, InshAllah means “if Allah wills it”, and MashAllah is used to express appreciation to God for some good that has occurred. You know, just in case you were wondering.
So I guess we have covered most of the general questions. If there are any others, do ask. Until then, Ramadan Kareem!
Written by Jemila Abdulai and originally published on Circumspecte.com in August 2009.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.