Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, begins at the end of this month, on the evening of June 28. From dawn until sunset, observing Muslims refrain from eating and drinking. (Most also refrain from smoking and sexual relations.) Last year, my friend, Sarah Ager, launched Interfaith Ramadan which explores various aspects of this sacred time. I finally caught up with Sarah a couple of weeks ago to hear what she has planned for this year’s Interfaith Ramadan. As an American who was raised Christian, I have a tendency to over-simplify what Ramadan is, what it means, and how it is observed. Interfaith Ramadan is one of the tools I use to better understand how individual Muslims actually observe the holiday, so it ranks high on my list of “great interfaith happenings.”
As many Americans now know, Ramadan follows the Islamic lunar calendar, which means the fasting period moves up about 10 days each year relative to our solar calendar. For the last several years, Ramadan has fallen during our summer months, creating interesting news stories for American media outlets. A few years ago, when Ramadan fell during our August, the press quickly focused on Husain and Hamza Abdullah, Muslim brothers (literally) who play American football in the NFL. Both were observing Ramadan – nothing to eat or drink – during the hot, grueling days of training camp. In 2012, Ramadan fell during the summer Olympic Games in London. Numerous articles outlined the various choices Olympic athletes and teams made with respect to the holiday period.
One upside of those news stories was that they brought a more personal perspective to Ramadan. Until then, most of my knowledge about Ramadan was factual, and as a result, somewhat distant. I had read numerous web sites offering basic descriptions of what Ramadan is and how it could be faithfully observed. I had also read various passages in the Qur’an and Hadith that talk about Ramadan. Here’s one example.
Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you, and perchance you shall be grateful. (Qur’an 2:185)
But that knowledge got me only so far. I think everyone should be aware of the major faith practices in all the world’s major religions. For Islam, that would certainly include Ramadan. For me, the danger lay in assuming that my limited knowledge base offered anything close to a complete picture of how Ramadan is actually practiced by the over 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. As with all faith traditions grounded in ancient texts, things get fairly complicated fairly quickly when it comes to modern-day interpretation. And everything becomes even trickier in our global world. The truth is that Ramadan looks different for nearly everyone who observes it!
Morning Meal: If you’re fasting from sunrise to sunset, that means you are allowed to eat in the wee morning hours. That pre-fast meal is called suhoor. Some people find it much easier to maintain their daily fast if they eat early in the morning. Professional athletes observing Ramadan generally eat and drink a fair amount for suhoor. However, some people find that eating a big meal early in the day makes the daily fast harder! So, some people eat a lot, some people eat a small amount, and some people skip suhoor altogether.
Fasting in Muslim vs. non-Muslim Countries: For Muslims living in predominantly Muslim countries, accommodations are regularly made for everyone who is fasting. People do not invite one another out for lunch, athletic practices are rearranged, school schedules are altered, and workloads are often reduced. For Muslims in non-Muslim countries, nothing in the surrounding culture changes. Muslims observing Ramadan are expected to work, as usual, whether they’re hungry or not. Moreover, no time off is given to perform the charity/community service work or prayers/recitation of the Qur’an that are also important components of Ramadan. In non-Muslim countries, food and drink are also served as usual, which means practicing Muslims must constantly refuse these things when offered. One of my Muslim friends said she finds it overly difficult to observe Ramadan here in America. She misses the community aspect of Ramadan and only practices if she happens to be in her home country during the holiday. Another Muslim friend says he loves to observe Ramadan in America for those very reasons. He feels that his practice requires more of a commitment here in America, and that makes it feel both deeper and more profound.
Children: In addition to the exemptions mentioned in the Muslim sacred texts, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may also refrain from fasting, and young children generally do not fast until puberty. Beyond that, however, Ramadan differs widely from family to family. In some families, elementary-school kids might fast for part of the day or for one weekend day. Kids might refrain from eating but still drink liquids. Some families help their kids observe Ramadan through nightly readings of the Qur’an, performing community service, or donating money to the needy. And mothers who fast, but still prepare daily meals for their kids, commit to an additional layer of dedication.
Daylight Hours: Even the notion of daylight hours varies more widely than you might think. The Middle East, where Islam was founded, is fairly close to the equator. There, the length of the day does not vary much over the course of the year. In countries far from the equator, the time between sunrise and sunset is significantly longer during the summer months. That means Muslims near the equator are fasting for about the same amount of time every year; Muslims far from the equator have longer fasting days during the summer but shorter fasting days during the winter.
And therein lies the power of Sarah’s Interfaith Ramadan. Sarah got the idea to start Interfaith Ramadan from a hashtag on Twitter. Her blog posts, which follow her Ramadan journey, can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and her web site. Originally from the UK, Sarah currently teaches English in Bologna, Italy. She describes herself as an an interfaith activist, an ex pat. writer, and a postmodern Anglo-Muslim hybrid. When she began observing Ramadan, she didn’t feel like she had much of a Muslim community in Bologna, so she created community through social media. Sarah’s posts are clever, humorous, and extremely honest. They are also helping to build a global, interfaith Ramadan community that offers fresh perspectives and a variety of viewpoints.
This year marks Sarah’s third Ramadan observance and her second Interfaith Ramadan project. Sarah’s first Ramadan didn’t feel particularly difficult. Because she is a teacher and because Ramadan fell during the summer, she wasn’t required to do much work during the day. That made fasting easier. Last year’s Ramadan was significantly more challenging because she was posting daily blogs. Of course, the challenge of posting every day also greatly enriched her experience. Sarah’s blog will go even further this year. To enhance the “interfaith” part of Interfaith Ramadan, she has arranged for even more guest bloggers and for more personal perspectives. Posts from non-fasting members of Jewish, Christian, Humanist, and Bahá’í communities are planned. She will also offer posts from practicing Muslims (who are all different, by the way!).
To get the full view of Sarah’s experiences, you should follow her blog, but I will share some of my favorite tidbits from our recent conversation. The passage from the Qur’an cited above clearly states, “Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties,” but what constitutes “difficulties” for one person does not constitute “difficulties” for another. Besides, it’s supposed to be difficult on some level. Sarah says one of most difficult aspects of Ramadan from her perspective is bad breath! Since you are not drinking anything, your mouth gets very dry. Her advice? Brush your teeth more often! She and her partner also prepare their end-of-the-day meals in the morning. Why? Because when they tried to prepare their meals at the end of the day, they were too hungry to be civil to one another, and they often burned the food in their haste to cook it.
If you don’t know anything about Ramadan, I encourage you to check out the more factual links below. But if you already know the basics, then I encourage you to take the next step. Get to know some of the people who observe Ramadan and begin to recognize the wide variation in how the holiday is observed. Follow Sarah’s blog or find other webs sites dedicated to a more in-depth understanding of Ramadan. We would never assume that all Christians around the world celebrate Christmas or Easter in the same way, so why would we assume something similar about Ramadan? Interfaith Ramadan helps us to put faces and names with this sacred practice, which is really what interfaith dialogue is all about.
Twitter: Interfaith Ramadan@InterfaithRam
Facebook: Interfaith Ramadan Starts
Yusuf Ali, A. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print