This information is for non-Muslims and recent converts to Islam, or anyone who has questions about Ramadhan.
So the month of Ramadhan has begun. This is the most sacred of all the months of the Islamic calendar (lunar) and is identified commonly as the moth of fasting. This is also the month that the Qur’an, the ultimate scripture of Islam, was first revealed in. Muslims believe also that every good deed that you practice or do is multiplied hundred and thousand folds, your blessings and rewards from God for all good intentions and actions, including fulfilling religious obligations, are multiplied. And for this and other reasons, Muslims are esp more generous in Ramadhan.
THE RAMADHAN GREETING
Before I get into the details of fasting, if you’d like to know how to greet a Muslim at this time, or if you wanna know what the greeting you’ve been seeing all around social media since Tuesday is, it’s: Ramadhan Mubarak, pronounced Ramadhaan mubaaarak. This is the most common greeting shared by Muslims everywhere I think, but you have other options too, and something like “Ramadhan kareem” ( = probably meaning have a generous Ramadhan? May God be generous to you during Ramadhan? May you be generous during Ramadhan?) has become more popular in recent years too. You can say it English too: happy Ramadhan! Or “(have a) blessed Ramadhan” (the literal meaning of Ramadhan mubarak). It’s wonderful to feel seen as a minority, so if you’ve a Muslim friend, greet them with this, even if they’re not fasting. I advise against asking about their fasting because some struggle with it, some aren’t able to fast, some don’t want to fast and feel guilty, some have a complicated relationship with the religion or with God or with their community and therefore may not fast currently and there’s social/religious stigma against not fasting if you’re deemed able by others, and so the question can be triggering for them or they may feel uncomfortable.
Now for some general information about Ramadhan and fasting.
WHEN DO YOU FAST?
It’s not just from sunrise to sunset that we fast – it’s from dawn to sunset. And fun fact? “Sunset” is debatable, and all Muslims don’t agree on what exactly God meant when She said fast from this time till this time cuz She didn’t use the words sunset/sunrise. Yeah, scriptures are cool like that. I mean, y’all, Qur’anic verse 2:187 tells us that the fast begins when we see “the light of dawn breaking the darkness of night” (literally very different wording, tho, something about being able to distinguish a white thread from a black thread, or the white of dawn from the darkness of night! #ahhScriptures) and that the fast ends when “night” begins. So Shi’a and Sunni Muslims understand these verses/rules differently and don’t break their fast at the same time, and this is why we have to be careful and not say “sunset” as if that’s THE agreement – it’s not. Turns out, everything’s debatable in religion, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
And by fast, I mean not just from food: yes, water, too, but not JUST food and water. Any sexual activity, any fighting, any speaking badly of others, any other bad habits, hurting people, even anger, etc., all such things invalidate the fast. When a fast is invalidated, that means you have to make it up outside of Ramadhan, and you have the whole year until Ramadhan returns.
To begin your fast, you have several options. You may go to sleep as you normally would and wake up at any time before dawn. We have schedules/timetables for this calculated in advance. Another option is to eat before you sleep and only wake up at your normal time as you do outside of ramadhan. This will mean, tho, that your fast will be very long and you’ll be hungry much longer. You do the best you can to avoid having to break your fast out of necessity, and necessity is defined by you the faster. Another option I’ve seen – and this was in Morocco and Oman – is that you stay up all night until dawn, eating and socialising with family and friends and neighbours & praying occasionally, and then sleep once you’ve done your morning/dawn prayer, and then wake up in the middle of the day…. Yeah, some Muslim-majority countries will adjust their work day during ramadhan so that you can do your fast just fine.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHILE FASTING ALL DAY?
Throughout the day, you want to get as much prayer and closeness with God as possible. You may still go to work and fulfill other obligations (& God rewards you for those), but you want to remember constantly that you’re fasting. You try to worship in whatever ways and to whatever extent you can, so you might recite different names of God all day long (not necessarily out loud), you might send blessings on the prophet Muhammad and Abraham, you might make sure to do all your 3-5 prayers on time throughout the day, you might read the Quran as much as possible and aim to complete one whole juz’ (part) – there are 30 juz’s of the Qur’an total, so you might try to do at least one a day to complete the whole Quran in ramadhan), you might spend time with other people and connect with others, you might visit places where you feel the presence of God and goodness to keep yourself spiritually grounded, you might volunteer in your community, you might give a lot of charity, and so on.
All of this is much easier this month than others becuz fun fact? Muslims believe that Satan/the devil is tied up in Ramadhan so can’t tempt us to do evil! For those of us who still do evil, that’s cuz we’re such lost causes we don’t even need Satan anymore to be tempting us. 😬
What else does one do throughout the day as they fast? Ahh, but this depend so much on your gender and where you live! If you have a big family and community and you get together with others for a large meal to break your fast with, for example, AND you’re a woman, you’ll have very little time throughout the day to do anything but prepare for this very feast. (& we know cooking and house work generally are very gendered tasks.) If you have a smaller group to eat with, though, you’re probably not spending as much time cooking these meals. Bottom line, too many women don’t get as much of an opportunity, or aren’t able to take advantage of Ramadhan, as are many men.
Whoever can. There are so many exceptions to fasting. It’s one of the things I love so much about Islam. The flexibility of it and the practicality of it, how incredibly accommodating it is – like all other religions. You fast IF you can. The idea isn’t to kill you or make you suffer. On the contrary, the Qur’anic verses on fasting include a verse that God intends for us ease, not difficulty (Q. 2:185). It’s significant that this verse, referenced by Muslims validly in all kinds of contexts, is specifically in the context of fasting. Gives me chills every time. People on medication for whatever reasons are exempt; anyone to whose health fasting from food and/or water is a danger is exempt; you’re not required to fast during your menstruation; nursing and pregnant people are exempt; older people/ the elderly (this is negotiable – you decide if you’re not able to manage it) are exempt; so are children (anyone who hasn’t attained puberty yet, no specific age), anyone sick for just a few hours or a whole day or of a more complicated illness, anyone traveling long-distance (this is also negotiable – traveling on a camel or a horse in 7th century when the Qur’an was revealed was a tad more difficult than it is today, but you’re still allowed to not fast when you’re traveling even if you can do so. E.g., when you’re traveling to a different country during Ramadhan, you’re not expected/required to fast, but if you can handle it, by all means please do so); and so on. These exceptions are important. So ultimately, the idea is whoever CAN fast, is able to fast, should fast; it’s considered obligatory on them to fast. The “can” part is imp and Muslims often emphasise the health component, that everyone who fasts must be healthy enough to fast. What we don’t often hear, however, is that our definition of “healthy” over the last few decades has evolved and isn’t the same as what it was in the past; e.g., today, we (collectively, as a humanity) recognize the importance of good mental health more than we have before, and so even if the historical texts don’t explicitly mention something like “people who have depression don’t have to fast if they can’t handle it,” or “people with anorexia are exempt,” we can still apply extend our definition of “ability” to include all components of health, not physical alone. I also include spiritual, emotional health in this, and again, you do what you’re ABLE to do. (If you’re a Muslim reading this and have been told by someone else that you should fast even tho YOU know you can’t handle a fast, trust yourself and don’t fast. Don’t discuss it with people who’ll guilt you into fasting. Ultimately, this isn’t abt anyone else.)
Some Muslims take fasting and the details of what breaks and makes it and who can and can’t fast more literally than others, and some might get very technical about the guidelines and details. So they might ask questions that other people find silly and “missing the point.” For example, is my fast broken or invalidated – in which case I’ll have to make it up later, which is sometimes an inconvenience and let’s be real fasting isn’t always easy, esp depending on the season! – if I taste my food as I’m cooking it? Is a fast invalidated by using toothpaste or accidentally swallowing mouthwash while brushing your teeth during a fast? I broke my fast a couple mins after sunset; is that ok? I was eating and there was still taste in my mouth from what I was eating and the adhaan (call to prayer, how you know what time to pray or in this case begin your fast – relevant to Muslim-majority countries) happened; is my fast valid now?
But in such cases, it’s important to remember that religion means different things to different people, and it’s valuable that some people care this deeply about whether they’re doing something very, very right, exactly as intended by God – even if we can never really determine what God’s intentions are. Not so much fun with they pressure or force you to follow their rules, sure, but as long as they’re not doing that, they are allowed to get technical and focus on what someone else might think isn’t the point. Yes, unfortunately, manipulation happens and some people are given misinformation that makes it more difficult for them to fast, and in my opinion, the principle is missed and the minute details are prioritised and the faster isn’t given the opportunity to appreciate what the general ideas might be.
We have to be careful here. I grew up to a very terrible explanation that I’ve seen given on social media over the years, too, which is that “we fast so we can understand how the poor people, what it’s like to go hungry.” Yikes. My loves, poor people also have to fast if they fit the criteria of people able to fast! Hungry people too. You don’t break your fast just because you get hungry – unless the hunger is serious enough where it can damage your health, in which case, some interpretations of Islam would require you to break the fast because preservation of health is one of the objectives of the sharia (loosely translated as Islamic law).
So Muslims give all kinds of reasons for why they fast. The Quran doesn’t explain why, other than that religious communities and people before us (Muslims, the intended audience of the Qur’an) had to fast, that it may help us become mindful of God. So we do it because the Quran prescribes it, because it’s a thing that many religions have historically valued and some continue to do it. I am not averse to comparisons with lent, although for many Christians with lent, you can decide whatever to fast from, whereas for Islam, generally the idea is that, unless you’re unable to fast the conventional way, you can’t “replace” the rules for no food and water and such with “I’m gonna fast from Diet Coke for the next 30 days.” You MAY fast your own way if you belong in any of the groups exempt from fasting.
But religions with fasting as a big deal largely have treated it as a method to discipline humans. And anyone who has ever fasted knows how much discipline fasting requires – not getting angry / controlling your anger? Not eating just cuz you are hungry or feel like it? Not acting on any sexual desires? Treating people with kindness and respect even if they annoy your that you don’t like? All of this requires discipline, and discipline … leads to many good things, and I don’t think that’s debatable, right? So that’s my own explanation of it: it teaches me discipline (that’s also why I pray “the Muslim way” at the “Muslim times”.) but also? It makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger. I get to set goals for myself and reward myself when I complete them. I esp love the community aspect of ramadhan – community is so imp to me, community of all kinds – but with Covid, lots of necessary restrictions on who you can make or break your fasts with. I love knowing that most Muslims around the world, in any given city in the world, are fasting and celebrating this month. It’s also the most generous time of the year. I’ve experienced that generosity, and it’s gorgeous.
But bottom line, most Muslims fast because they consider it an obligation, a command from God. But also this same most Muslims have most likely found other reasons, more personal reasons, to look forward to fasting, to encourage others to fast too, to enjoy the fast, to appreciate it, and so on.
FASTING OUTSIDE OF RAMADHAN
Fasting is so meaningful – and so symbolic – that you don’t fast just in Ramadhan. There are many days designated throughout the Islamic calendar that are considered important for fasting, such as days the Prophet Muhammad fasted on and recommended it for others, too. It’s just that the Ramadhan fasts are religiously obligatory, and one’s accountable to God for fulfilling them. Outside of Ramadhan, and outside of the recommended fasts on other days, fasting is a way to expiate for certain sins or indiscretions a person commits. This means if you’ve committed certain acts that you’re not supposed to as a Muslim person, you can seek forgiveness from God by fasting for a certain number of days with the intention that may God forgive you for the thing you did that you weren’t supposed to do. I love the importance of symbolism in religions so much.
I don’t want to be romanticising ramadhan and fasting and certainly don’t want to generalise so that it sounds like I’m talking abt all individual Muslims. It should go without saying that Islam is an incredibly diverse religion, and Muslims come in all kinds of beliefs and ways of being Muslim. Ramadhan is generally a very beautiful month, Muslims do generally look forward to it (even if they don’t LOVE fasting in warm or hot weathers in long days), and the rules are generally followed by most fasters – I suspect. However, especially for Muslims living alone, or who don’t have a good community, or who aren’t on good terms with God or Islam or their community, or Muslims who have faced serious challenges recently or during another Ramadhan, or Muslims who have lost a loved one recently and this is their first Ramadhan without that loved one, or Muslims who are new parents (esp mothers), or Muslims with an illness of any kind – these are all groups of Muslims who might struggle a lot during Ramadhan. They may not fast, they may hurt when fasting, they may dread this month. And they exist and they are important and they’re still Muslim. So we don’t want to pretend like Ramadhan is a great time for everyone.
WHAT’S WITH THE MOON?
The moon is kind of a big deal in lunar calendars, you see. That’s how you know when a new month is here. Many Muslims take this literally and want to see the moon themselves, although it’s a bit more complicated so even if you see it yourself and your community decides that, nope, Ramadhan is not tomorrow, it’ll be too lonely to start the fast alone. Doing it with a community is important, so you go with the community around you decides. And the moon emojis automatically appears in any tweets with the word Ramadhan for this reason! Fun fact: while most (all?) Muslims universally rely on calculations some way in advance to determine the time of their daily 3-5 prayers, somehow when it comes to fasting and the two main celebrations (the two Eids), some of us get all technical and think that if we – by which I mean folks in charge, or dudes designated as religious authorities by governments of certain Muslim-majority counties – don’t see the moon ourselves with the naked eye, then we can’t begin our fast. This gets VERY political and petty and y’all, if a country doesn’t like another country and that second country decided that TOMORROW is Ramadhan, then the countries currently on bad terms with it will go okay we’ll fast the next day then… out of sheer spite!! And not just countries but communities, (ethnic, religious) groups, and sects too: if one starts one day, the other will start another day just to distinguish themselves from that other group. It’s a reality that exists, and it’s best you make your peace with this reality ASAP cuz it’s very frustrating to watch year after year. Muslims have never universally agreed on when we’ll begin or end our fasts and when we’ll celebrate the holidays.
WHAT HAPPENS ONCE RAMADHAN ENDS?
Once Ramadhan ends, the first day of the next month is the first day of Eid. There are two major Eids in the Islamic calendar, and the first one coming immediately after the fasting month ends, and it’s called Eid-al-Fitr – literally the Eid of breaking the fast. The second one occurs roughly 2 months and 10 days after the first one and is called Eid-ul-Adha, literally the Eid of Sacrifice (yeah, most Muslims take this literally and sacrifice an animal; some Muslims don’t take it this literally and might interpret sacrifice more metaphorically – more on Eid-ul-Adha when we get to it). For both Eids, you hang with family and community, there’s a prayer with a sermon that happens that you try to attend if you can, you greet each other with Eid mubaarak!, you wear new clothes if you can afford them, you eat lots and lots of foods with people you love and hang with, and depending on where you live and how many relatives you have around you, you might visit as many of your relatives as you can in a given day. The first day is the most important day of Eid, but it lasts for three days, and they’re a holiday in Muslim-majority countries (all?).
Ramadhan mubarak to everyone ❤
Okay, so I think that’s your what, why, when, who of fasting.
P.S. Ramadhan = Ramadan = Ramazaan = Ramzaan. The “dh” and “d” and “z” are the equivalents of an Arabic letter called dhaad (ض) and it’s just pronounced differently in different languages. All are correct because languages are a wonderful like that.
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