In this day and age many have some knowledge about the religion of Islam, and the month when Muslims refrain from drinking and eating during the day then celebrate by night (mostly with binge-eating). However, this special month doesn’t only have that outward appearance, but entails a much deeper personal worship in which devotees seek a better understanding of God.
Islam is a religion of mercy and submission in every aspect of human life to the One and Only Creator of the universe. The word itself literally translates into submission. Faithful Muslims therefore submit wholeheartedly to the will of God and adhere to the principles given to them by Him through his messenger Mohammad (peace be upon him).
To practice their faith, Muslims must accept the five essential obligations Islam requires, called the Pillars of Islam. The first is the witness of faith (Shahada), the second is the devotional obligatory prayers of the day (Salah), the third is the religious tax (Zakah), the fourth the fasting of the month of Ramadan (Sawwm), and finally the once in a lifetime annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Hijri calendar of Islam, which follows the lunar cycle. It begins with the sighting of the new moon, which reveals the end of the precedent month of Shabaan and the beginning of the new month of Ramadan. After the sighting, abstaining from drinking and eating and physical continence is obligatory every day between dawn and sunset.
It is the month when the Holy Quran, the miracle of Islam, started to be revealed to the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) by God through Arch Angel Gabriel. The night in which God communicated his first command “Read!” is called The Night of Fate or Power (Laylat Al Qadr). This night is said to be during one of the odd numbered last ten days of the month. It is a night decreed to be better than a thousand months as revealed in the Holy Quran (97:1-5):
“We have indeed revealed this (message) in the Night of Power. And what will explain to thee what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by God’s permission, on every errand: Peace! This until the rise of Morn.”
Fasting is a rigorous, yet deeply spiritual task to most people because the purpose is not only to control the physical needs, but to also devote ones’ time, mind and soul to the worship of The Creator. It is an act of self-control and self-denial, to feel the pangs of hunger the poor often feels.
Contrary to the recent political event, which took place during the holy month, to make a fast valid one must also refrain from lying, stealing, swearing, raising the voice in anger and violence, any act that displeases God and hurts mankind in any way.
Although fasting is essential to Islamic belief, in the Quran, God is compassionate to those who are physically incapable of fasting. Those who are ill or on a strenuous journey may fast the missed number of days later in the year, as well as pregnant or nursing women and women who are having their menstrual cycle during the month. Also, if it is impossible for a believer to fast, he/she may forego Ramadan and pay alms to the needy instead.
Throughout the month, the faithful’s time is should be devoted to reading and contemplating the Quran from beginning to end. It is recommended that the Quran is read more often during this sacred month because believers are less involved with their physical needs and so have a better chance of understanding the message. There are 30 sections in the Quran, coinciding with the usual 30 days of the month and one section each day is sufficient to complete the reading by the end of Ramadan.
Ramadan is a very unique occasion to Muslims around the world and each culture has a certain way of celebrating it. However, the common tradition of all cultures is the gathering of family, friends and colleagues and the sharing of Iftar (breaking the fast) with them, some-what like Christmas every day for a month. Special, delicious food is prepared during the month and eating the food after the fast gives believers an exciting and filling feeling. The individual learns to appreciate God’s blessings to humankind.
The Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) broke his fast with dates (thamr) and then went to pray before having his meal with the family and Muslims follow this tradition by breaking their fast the same way. However, condensed milk is also usually drunk with the dates. It is said that eating the dates gives you enough energy to perform the sunset prayer immediately so as not to miss it. Dedicated worshipers usually gather at the local mosque at night to read the Quran and pray the nightfall prayer plus the additional voluntary prayers called the Taraweeh.
After all prayers are done, the celebrations start. In all Middle Eastern countries, tents are put up, shishas (hookahs) are smoked and Atayef, which is a traditional Ramadan sweet, is served. Restaurants stay open late and the streets are filled with swarms of people. They stay up throughout the night until early morning chatting, laughing and watching Ramadan programs. Before dawn breaks, Muslims indulge in a small (actually large) meal called Suhour to prepare them for the next fasting day. Plenty of water is recommended more than food, especially in countries of dry, hot weather.
The last ten days of Ramadan are particularly sacred because they include the Night of Power and the Prophet (pbuh) dedicated extra time and prayers during these days. Muslims around the world also, following the Prophets’ tradition, spend extra time in the mosque or at home praying.
The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid Al-Fitr (festival of breaking the fast). It is one of the two major Islamic festivals, the second one being Eid Al-Adha (festival of sacrifice), which follows the fifth pillar of Islam – the Hajj. It is a three-day celebration where Muslims are not required to fast, especially on the first day, as they rejoice in the successful completion of the month.