As the first week of Ramadan finishes, I am filled with joy and gratitude that I am blessed to see another holy month, inshallah (God-willing). This past week, I gave a speech at an interfaith event where Muslim students broke their fasts with non-Muslim students. That night, a successful and supportive open dialogue was born. The best thing to come from such events is the outpouring of curiosity and the genuine engagement of non-Muslims with Muslim practices and beliefs. This was also a night filled with many questions, some expected and some new. So I thought, why not put together the answers to a series of standard questions I am frequently asked as a Muslim woman? The following are some of my favourite questions to answer about Ramadan:
- What is Ramadan and why do Muslims observe it?
This is one of my favourite questions as it allows me to unpack some of the beautiful Islamic history that informs our 1400 year old practice of fasting. Ramadan refers to the holy month of Muslims – it is the month in which Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had the Quran (the holy book of Muslims) revealed to him through the angel Jibreel (Arabic equivalent of ‘Gabriel’). However, the month of Ramadan was not officially established as an Islamic practice until the Prophet Muhammad and his fellow Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina fleeing persecution, some 14 years after the first Quranic revelation. The practice of fasting from thereon was instituted as one of the five pillars of Islam and has, since the seventh century, been annually observed by generations of Muslims. For many, Ramadan is not only seen as a religious duty, but it is also understood as an opportunity through which Muslims can increase their spirituality, spend more time self reflecting and, by doing the latter, build a stronger relationship with Allah (Arabic word for ‘God’).
- Do you fast at the same time every year?
No. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, which means that each year the start date of Ramadan shifts back roughly 10 days. In 2021, Ramadan began on April 12, and the year before that, it began on April 23. This year, Ramadan began on April 2. This may seem odd to others as most secular holidays (even if they have religious origins) occur on a set day/s of each year. As Ramadan requires Muslims to fast for roughly 12 hours a day – this can be slightly more or less depending where in the world you are located – following the lunar calendar means that all Muslims undergo a variety of fasting experiences. For example, the last time my parents fasted during the Australian summer was when I was 2 years old, and the next time they will experience fasting in the Australian summer will be when I am about 25 years old. This ensures that Muslims living in all corners of the world experience Ramadan in all seasons of the year and, therefore, observe both easy and difficult fasts. Moreover, the beginning and end of Ramadan is marked with the sighting of the new moon.Science tells us that the time it takes for the moon to complete one cycle is approximately 29-30 days. By following the lunar calendar to determine the start and end of Ramadan, Muslims do not fast more than 30 days, no matter where they are located in the world, and this ensures a harmonious and unanimous engagement with the month of Ramadan.
- Are there any exceptions to fasting?
Of course! The sick, the elderly, pregnant and breastfeeding women, menstruating women and travellers are exempted from fasting. Islam has always been a religion of practicality and it does not devalue a person’s physical and mental health in favour of obligatory fasting during Ramadan. Take it from me, a person who has not been medically permitted to fast for the past two Ramadans, and will not be fasting this year either, while fasting is one of the central aspects of Ramadan, there is much more to this holy month than abstaining from food and water.
- Not even water?
Don’t be surprised but yes, not even water! But more than just abstaining from food and water, Ramadan for Muslims is a month in which they can practice self-restraint in many different areas of their life. I have Muslim friends who have made it a goal that they will cut back on social media use, hoping to use these 30 days to break their old social media habits and form new ones (as they say: habits take about 21 days to form!). As for me, my aim this year is to fix my sleeping schedule – train myself to go to bed earlier, wake up for fajr (the early morning prayer performed by Muslims around 5am), and get my day started after that. Of course, alongside these goals, Muslims also set goals to develop habits such as reading the Quran every day, becoming more regular in their daily prayers, or perhaps if they have already achieved these, aiming to engage in extra voluntary worship such as offering prayers before fajr.
- What types of foods do you eat during Ramadan?
Let’s start with some basics. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims have two meals – one in the morning before sunrise, and one at sunset. The meal that Muslims have before sunrise is known as ‘suhoor’ (Arabic), or ‘sehri’ (the term used by most South Asian Muslim households). Suhoor is the meal that will fuel our fast for the next 12 hours. The meal that Muslims have at sunset, when breaking their fast, is called ‘iftaar’. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) urged Muslims to break their fast with a date. If they are not able to break their fast with a date, then they should do so with a sip of water. If water is not accessible at that point in time, then with something sweet. This is a practice that is followed by most Muslim households. However, beyond the Medjool dates that we break our fasts with, the suhoor and iftaar meals of each Muslim family are as diverse as the cultures that exist within the community. As an Indian-Muslim the meals that my family and I eat are significantly different to what my Arab-Muslim friends consume. For suhoor, my family and I often consume proper meals, which often includes dishes such as Khatti Daal, Chicken 65, Hyderabadi Dum Chicken Biryani and sometimes, if we’re really feeling different, homemade burgers! At about 4am in the morning, my family has a whole Indian spread laid out on our dining table and it’s one of the best parts of Ramadan. For a close Arab friend of mine, she couldn’t fathom eating spices, curries and oil for suhoor. I’ve learnt that her morning meal consists of fruits, Lebanese bread and, if she’s really feeling fancy, maybe some charcoal chicken.
For iftaar, my mum often prepares Indian street food such as Dahi Vada, Pani Puri, Aloo Chaat or Samosas. Alongside Indian street food there will be watermelon or rockmelon slices, and a staple box of Medjool dates. Sometimes this will become our dinner – other times, I come back for a second serving of food a bit later on in the evening.
- What can I do for a Muslim friend/loved one who is fasting during Ramadan?
To keep it simple: be kind and don’t presume that you know what’s healthier or better for them. For Muslims, the month of Ramadan is special and is often a time in which they may decide to become a bit more introverted to focus on themselves – don’t take it personally. Understand that priorities may shift to engaging more with religious worship and that this is not an attack on your relationship with them. My friends are amazing during Ramadan. Leading up to this month, they ask me questions about what I need from them, and I would urge you to do the same with friends, colleagues and loved ones who are fasting.
Ramadan Mubarak to all!