Ramadan Mubarak! During this season of Ramadan, I want to share a little of what I have learned from my Muslim friends and neighbors about this holy month.
Five years ago, about the only thing I knew about Ramadan was that it involved fasting…for a really, really long time. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am no stranger to fasting. We have a designated Fast Sunday at the start of each month when we go without food or drink for 24 hrs or two consecutive meals. But a MONTH! How do you go a month without eating???
Well, first of all, while Ramadan lasts for a month (29 or 30 days) Muslims do not go without food the entire time. (obviously) Before sunrise each day, a pre-fast meal called the suhoor is eaten to provide energy for the day. The morning prayer (Fajr) marks the beginning of their fast which lasts until the sun sets. Once the evening prayer (Maghrib) has been observed it is time to refuel physically and emotionally for the next day of fasting and devotion. Family and friends often gather for the evening meal (iftar) which is a time of unity and celebration during this season of spiritual reflection and increased worship to God.
One of my favorite interfaith experiences has been joining my Muslim bothers and sisters for an Iftar during the month of Ramadan. Not only is the food absolutely amazing (seriously the best!) but the spirit of love and community consecrated by the fast of faithful believers is truly touching. I would HIGHLY encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend a community iftar to attend. (and please bring me back some baklava!)
So why do Muslims observe Ramadan and more importantly what can we all learn from this incredible act of devotion?
For followers of Islam, fasting isn’t just a good thing to do, but a requirement or pillar of the faith. You may have heard of the Five Pillars of Islam. Fasting (sawm) was taught by the prophet Muhammad as a way to increase devotion to God.
“Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you many learn piety and righteousness” (Quran 2:183)
The practice of fasting is common to most religions and acts as a way to elevate the self or the soul above physical wants and needs to access a higher level of spirituality. Muslims fast specifically during the holy month of Ramadan to commemorate the month in which the Quran (the holy text of Islam) was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Note: Muslims also fast at other times throughout the year to ask for forgiveness of sins.
What can we learn from Ramadan?
One of the most inspiring aspects of witnessing my Muslim friends observance of Ramadan is their cheerful obedience. As I have asked them if it is hard to fast in the western world where life goes on around them with little or no thought to their fast (work, school, athletics) they always respond with a smile that it is a blessing to fast. I have never heard them complain about the long hot days when Ramadan falls in the summer. (I forgot to mention that Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar and falls at different times each year) As we have held interfaith meetings during the fast, there is no grumbling or complaint when others enjoy a snack or meal. When asked if it is hard to fast that many days in a row, I am met with nothing but gratitude for the increased devotion of the season.
As a young person growing up, the approach of Fast Sunday often solicited dread as I contemplated the hours of stomach pains sure to lay ahead. Even on a Sunday surrounded by fellow participants in the fast, when a younger sibling enjoyed a bowl of captain crunch, I would lament the unfairness of my plight. Now as an adult, I am ashamed to admit how often I note the approach of the 1st Sunday of the month as I would an upcoming visit to the dentist. Necessary, but not desired.
Now imagine a blend of Fast Sunday and Christmas! All the sights, smells, traditions and memories of that special season connected with the increased spiritual devotion from fasting. What if the night before Fast Sunday felt like Christmas Eve? Wouldn’t that be the coolest?
What I have learned from Ramadan is how to celebrate the fast! To be intentional about my devotion and to be grateful for the sacrifice. How can I make fasting a more positive experience for myself and my loved ones? What elements of Ramadan can I incorporate? Here are a few ideas I came up with:
Create fun and memorable traditions. Make it a day to celebrate and look forward to each month!
- Have a special meal at a designated time to break our fast. Use special plates. Make a favorite or meaningful meal. Wait until sundown and eat by candlelight. Create a tradition around the meal. (I have included a few recipes at the end of this post if you want to try a traditional Mediterranean meal for your evening meal. Delicious!)
- Gather with family and friends to break the fast. Treat it like a birthday or special occasion, one to be shared!
Start your fast with increased intention. Central to the Islamic practice of fasting is the concept of intention. Muslims offer special prayers (dua) to state their intention before fasting.
“He who does not make the intention for fasting before dawn, there is no fast for him”¹
One of the leaders of my church, Elder Carl B. Pratt of the First Quorum of the Seventy said,
“If we have a special purpose in our fasting, the fast will have much more meaning. Perhaps we can take time as a family before beginning our fast to talk about what we hope to accomplish by this fast. This could be done in a family home evening the week before fast Sunday or in a brief family meeting at the time of family prayer. When we fast with purpose, we have something to focus our attention on besides our hunger.”
Make it about more than just food.
“Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink.”²
When Muslims talk about Ramadan they don’t just talk about refraining from food or drink but refer to it as a fast from all wrongdoing. Pray for greater charity and patience and to become your best self while you fast rather than giving into the “hangry” feelings. It should also be noted that all who are unable to fast for medical or other reasons can make the fast up at another time. If you can’t fast from food and water find another way to make the day meaningful.
Increase prayer and worship. One thing my Muslim friends have mentioned they like about Ramadan is how much more time they devote to study and prayer. The mosques become a hive of activity with special devotional studies, lectures, and extra prayers. Most people commit to reading the Quran more intensely with some reading the book in its entirety during the month. Fast Sundays can sometimes feel like more about survival than study and I can do more to change that through dedicating extra time to prayer and scripture study while I fast.
Find joy in giving. Another key element of Ramadan is charitable giving (zakat) which is another of the Five Pillars of Islam. During the month, Muslims make charitable donations and find ways to serve and bless their community. This is similar to the fast offering made by members of my faith, but we would do well to make it a more significant part of our devotion. Besides just writing a check, how can we reach out and bless our families and communities while we fast?
I am excited to take the lessons I have learned from my Muslim friends and the devotional practices of the nearly 1.8 billion members of the Islamic faith. There is truly so much we can learn from one another and I am grateful to the faithful men and women of all religions who inspire me with their faith.
My favorite Mediterranean dishes for a special iftar meal: