Ramadan

With the first glimpse of the new moon this week, Muslims worldwide began their annual month of fasting in observance of Ramadan. For 30 days, more than 1.5 billion Muslims will abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours.

Many non-Muslims know the basics of Ramadan, but often not much more. What does it mean? How did it start? Need to Know provides a primer.

The tradition

In Arabic, “Ramadan” is the name given to the ninth month of the lunar calendar, and this association predates the founding of Islam.

The observance of Ramadan commemorates the month during which Allah is said to have revealed the first verses of the Quran — the holy text at the center of Islam — to the prophet Muhammad. This event, known as Laylat al-Qadr, is said to have taken place in the year 610. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Reading the entire Quran is Ramadan tradition, and many mosques break the text into 30 sections to be read during evening prayers each night.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and during Ramadan, every healthy adult Muslim (defined as someone who has undergone puberty) must fast between sunrise and sunset for 30 days. Exceptions are made for women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating, as well as anyone too ill to participate.

Because the lunar calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan begins 10 or 11 days earlier each year. The starting date is still a subject for debate as to whether observation of the new moon or scientific calculations should be used to determine the timing of the first fast, but the Fiqh Council of North America decreed that this year’s official U.S. start date would be August 11.

The required fast will prove particularly hard this year and for the next several years, as Ramadan falls at the height of summer, when daylight hours are extended and heat can be a concern.

Despite the added burden, Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, described this aspect of the tradition as “one of the beauties of Ramadan.”

“It’s never static, and nothing in life is ever static,” Lekovic said. “Over the course of your lifetime, you experience it through all seasons.”

The fast

This “spring cleaning for the soul” is a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection, Lekovic said. “The act of fasting is supposed to be about connecting mind, body and spirit all at the same time. Through the act of fasting you are remembering those who fast not by choice, but by circumstance.”

Muslims cope with the extended period of abstinence by waking up for a predawn breakfast and prayer. They break the fast each night with a communal feast that traditionally begins with participants eating dates and drinking either water or milk out of respect for Muhammad (water is not allowed during the day). A generous meal and evening congregational prayer generally follow.

“It’s like a feast when you break your fast,” said Munira Syeda, communications manager of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “There is a theory that you actually gain weight after the month of fasting because Muslims eat so much during the evening.”

In addition to fasting, Muslims are also urged to be on their best behavior — to refrain from engaging in foul language, lies, or any unethical or immoral act, Syeda noted.

Charity

Charity work and almsgiving – the fourth pillar of Islam – are also encouraged during Ramadan.

Muslims with financial means are encouraged to give away 2.5 percent of their accumulated wealth during the season. This means a renewed focus on community service and direct donations, plus the establishment of Humanitarian Day as part of a trend toward daylong service events, Lekovic noted.

Eid al-Fitr

When the fast ends, the celebration begins. A major Muslim holiday known as Eid al-Fitr, or the “Festival of Breaking Fast,” occurs on the first day of the month following Ramadan, this year September 10. The Eid is technically marked by an additional congregational prayer, but celebrations have become elaborate.

In southern California, Syeda described prayer gatherings at convention centers and bazaars where women buy jewelry and get painted with henna in preparation for the feasts. Gift giving is also becoming part of the tradition as Muslim families strive to make the day memorable.

Lekovic spoke of a “unique American manifestation of Ramadan” that has developed just in the last couple of decades. From mosques hosting Eid carnivals complete with bouncers, rides and face painting to celebratory excursions to Six Flags, there is a growing effort to further establish an American-Muslim identity: “I think that there’s a natural instinct, particularly for our youth, to create an authentically Muslim and American celebration of our holiday that is rooted in the here and now,” she said.

Ramadan in the U.S.

Although Americans tend to be less familiar with the stringent requirements of the fast, Lekovic has noticed increasing awareness and sensitivity toward Ramadan. Still, Muslims may have it harder in the U.S. than in places where Islam is the dominant religion.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, according to an October 2009 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, with Muslims representing 23 percent of the total world population, then estimated at 6.8 billion. The Pew report indicates that there are nearly 2.5 million Muslims living in the U.S., representing 0.8 percent of the worldwide community and only 0.2 percent of the U.S. population.

“If you were observing Ramadan in a Muslim majority country, it would be easier in the sense that people around you are doing the same thing,” said Syeda. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Syeda was not tempted all day long by food and water because the community as a whole observed the fast.

“In America, you still have to go on with your daily life, you have to go to work, you have to go to school, you have to go about your business, so it provides a special challenge,” said Syeda.

Still, Syeda was quick to point out that observing Ramadan as an American also provides a greater reward – that of enduring amid greater temptation.

 

Comments

  • carokyn DiCarlo

    Appreciate this article post about Ramaden, it help’s to learn and understand in a factual and simple way for anyone who want’s to know and I especially did, so….
    Thankyou.!!!!

  • Ruth Schell

    Thank you for the informations. Spreading knowledge helps to fight intolerance and prejudice. It should be required reading, and be taught in schools.

  • Kathaleen Grant

    This was indeed very informative for those of us liberal-minded types who support tolerance yet are often ignorant of the topics we are tolerating! I enjoyed the article and only wish that learning opportunities of this kind were a more common sight in our society, rather than the rantings of some who make headlines, ie., the current anti-Islamic rhetoric around building a mosque near Ground Zero. Certainly, there have been other religions whose members have become radicalized and committed criminal acts, like bombing women’s clinics. Should we then ban Catholic or Protestant Churches from or near these sites? Freedom of religion and separation of Church and State have no meaning in this country unless we respect it as a rule of law. Muslims, like Jews, Catholics and others are free to practice their religion and we as Americans are obligated by our Constitution to tolerate and respect those freedoms.

  • Ellen Uricheck

    It is highly apropriate at this time, with so much controversy surrounding the building of a Mosque at Ground Zero, that the non-Muslim citizens of the United States become aware of the real nature of the Muslim religion and it’s positive influences and practices. It is ignorance that breeds hostility and your article has done much to help dispell this ignorance. Now, if we can only foster and encorage curiosity which leads to knowledge, perhaps there is hope for enlightenment of the citizenry. Thank you for posting this article.

  • Sage

    Knowledge is a powerful tool. I appreciate PBS for giving me knowledge to understand what I have feared because I do not know. Now I just want to learn more about Muslim religion. Thank you PBS.

  • Jonibev

    Islam is a patriarchal religion, as is Christianity and Judiasm but for some reason, in Islam, restrictions on a woman’s right to choose the use and actions of her own body, think her own thoughts and simply walk away when she has had enough are much more severely judged and punished. I would, therefore, caution any woman, young or old, about becoming too involved in any religion that limits her right to function as an equal adult in our democratic society.

  • N. Deal

    Interesting article but,…

    Some of the math is suspect:

    “…according to an October 2009 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, with Muslims representing 23 percent of the total world population, then estimated at 6.8 billion.”
    Correctly support (6.8 billion X 23% = 1.564 billion) the first paragraph claim that: “… more than 1.5 billion Muslims will abstain from …”

    However continuing: “… The Pew report indicates that there are nearly 2.5 million Muslims living in the U.S., representing 0.8 percent of the worldwide community and only 0.2 percent of the U.S. population.”
    (1.564 billion X 0.8% = 0.0125 billion or 12.5 million or about 1 to 2 percent of the estimated US population, a 5 to 10 fold underestimate.)
    Also this statistical approach ignores the fact that ‘ethnic minorities’ (including Muslims I presume) often live in ‘ethnic communities’ so that for many it actually “… would be easier in the sense that people around you are doing the same thing,” than Syeda implies with this logic.

    Even more confusing:
    “Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and during Ramadan, every healthy adult Muslim (defined as someone who has undergone puberty) must fast between sunrise and sunset for 30 days…”
    “Because the lunar calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan begins 10 or 11 days earlier each year….”
    “The required fast will prove particularly hard this year and for the next several years, as Ramadan falls at the height of summer, when daylight hours are extended and heat can be a concern.
    Despite the added burden, Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, described this aspect of the tradition as “one of the beauties of Ramadan.”
    “It’s never static, and nothing in life is ever static,” Lekovic said. “Over the course of your lifetime, you experience it through all seasons.””
    “…out of respect for Muhammad (water is not allowed during the day).”

    Since three or more days without water is fatal it appears it is physically impossible to survive as a practising Muslim throughout a life time lived above the arctic circle with it’s 24hr long summer days.
    In fact the further North of the Tropic of Cancer or South of the Tropic of Capricorn one lives the more disproportionate the burden of this particular tradition becomes when it occurs during the respective summer seasons.
    I wonder how disproportionate the burden of this pillar of Islamic Religion was originally intended to be when migrating Muslims were considered?

  • Jaiden Angel 81

    You only fast from sunrise to sunset…in other words, you can eat at night!

  • Jerome Potts

    Not a good idea to live past the (ant)arctic circle when you’re Muslim. Those who are traveling are exempt from the fast, but are supposed to make up for it later.

    Living far away from the equator, the summer days are indeed longer, while not as hot ; all those fasting have it tough. Many solve this day length difference dilemma by sticking to the Arabian (specifically, Mecca) daily schedule ; this is what most would likely do if living above the arctic circle, while not merely visiting.

  • steph

    your silly. i had a good friend who is muslim and i spent a good bit of time at their house during ramadan and i have noticed that many of the people drank at least 6 cups each of water. so they cant drink water during the day but they make up for it in the evening. which is pretty much the point because then they are greatful for the bountys that Allah provides us.

  • steph

    your silly. i had a good friend who is muslim and i spent a good bit of time at their house during ramadan and i have noticed that many of the people drank at least 6 cups each of water. so they cant drink water during the day but they make up for it in the evening. which is pretty much the point because then they are greatful for the bountys that Allah provides us.