Early last week, I sent a message out on my Facebook page asking what questions people have surrounding Ramadan, Eid, etc. I also reached out to other friends to see if they had questions they would also like me to cover.
Before I dive into all of the information I'm going to share, I want to lead by explaining that while I am Muslim, I have all the respect for those who practice other religions. I feel that religion is a personal thing and I encourage people to embrace what religion or lack of religion is what connects best with them.
I also often feel uneasy and unsure about the feedback that I'll receive when I write about Islam. Living in the US, there are a lot of misunderstandings about Islam leading to a great deal of Islamophobia. I was not born Muslim, but I came to the religion on my own back in 2016. Since then, I personally have been on the receiving end of comments such as "___ is uncomfortable with you being Muslim," "___ thinks it's weird that you're Muslim," and so on. So when I speak publicly, I often find myself feeling anxious about what sort of feedback I will be receiving. That said, I don't let that prevent me from talking on the subject because I feel it's more important to have this dialogue, rather than hide away from potential backlash.
One final note on this is that I am by no means an expert on Islam and Ramadan. If there are any questions that I don't know the answer to, I will be up front that I don't know the answer and will reach out to others and try to get the answer. I also welcome fellow Muslims to add anything you may have to this conversation about Ramadan.
Now that that's out of the way, let's dive in, shall we?
One of the questions that I was asked to cover has to do with the history of Ramadan. How did it start? What does it represent? Etc. And to dive into that, I want to explain a little bit about Islam as a whole.
Islam is one of the main three Abrahamic religions, the other main two being Judaism and Christianity. That means that there is a great deal of overlap of beliefs between the various Abrahamic religions. In Islam, the main religious text is the Quran. That said, other religious scriptures such as the Torah, the Gospels, the Psalms, etc. are also recognized for their importance to the beginning of Islam.
Islam came to be after both Judaism and Christianity had been around for a considerable amount of time. In Islamic history, it is believed that following the inception of Christianity, there was a low point that followed where many people were giving up monotheism and returning to worshiping many false deities. However, all of that began to change with a man named Muhammad. He was a middle aged man who was one of the few that did not believe in worshiping the false deities that those around him were worshiping. He took time to go be alone for awhile at the top of a mountain and it was there that the Quran began being revealed to him. He had been commanded to write, which was impossible because he had been illiterate. But after being commanded three times, he began writing what was being revealed to him. The Quran was revealed over a period of time, not all at once. But the start of the revelation and the miracle of this revelation is significant to Muslims.
While some refer to Ramadan as a holiday, it is actually not really a holiday, but rather a significant religious month. It is similar to Lent in Christianity. I am not as familiar with Judaism, so unfortunately I don't know if there is something comparable in Judaism. Regardless, Ramadan is less about having a big celebration and is more about focusing on the religion and our beliefs. For Muslims, we believe that during Ramadan, shaytan (satan) is locked up in hell for the entirety of the month and therefore cannot tempt us. Without that extra temptation, we are forced to face what are the bad habits and bad traits we have adopted. It is easy to blame bad behavior, thoughts, actions, etc. on being tempted by shaytan. But when that temptation is gone, we are forced to look in the mirror and see that these things are also things that we have adopted for ourselves.
Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims are to fast from the time that the sun rises to the time that the sun sets. When people think of fasting, they think of it being exclusively food. However, for Muslims, fasting is more than that for the month. In addition to no food from the time that the sun rises to the sun sets, Muslims also cannot drink, smoke, engage in intimate or sexual actions, etc. It is not just about what is put into one's body, such as food, but also what comes out. Someone fasting is supposed to watch their temper, watch their language, etc. Again, with the notion that there is not the temptation for shaytan, a person is to reflect on the way they are handling these measures as to what things they could change and improve for themselves.
From the time that the Quran began being revealed, it was a gradual process of adjustments. For example, Muslims are forbidden from consuming alcohol or any other substance that could intoxicate a person. However, in the early days of Islam, there were other rules around this. It began that people could not pray when they were intoxicated. Over time as the Quran went on being revealed and more rulings were being revealed, this became more conservative to the point of it being altogether forbidden.
That said, I genuinely believe that this is a good reminder and guide for people who practice any religion, Islam or otherwise, to approach their relationship with their religion as a journey. When one takes on every single element that makes up a "perfect" practice of that religion, it becomes unmanageable. It is too much too quickly.
During Ramadan, the way that Muslims spend the month varies person to person. Some will spend all day praying and reading Quran. On the flip side, others simply fast. There is a large spectrum of how Muslims approach Ramadan and connecting with Islam and reflecting on themselves. If one person is doing one thing and the other isn't, that doesn't make one right or one wrong. The two are simply at different places in their journey.
That also leads me to a big question: What do Muslims do if they honestly and truly cannot fast?
There are times when some may not be able to fast. For women who are menstruating, they are not to fast. Instead, they are to make up those fasts at a later date. Women who are pregnant or nursing are also excused from fasting, but can if it is safe to do so. Again, those are to be made up at a later date.
However, there are different rules for people who have certain health conditions that may prevent them from being able to fast. Fasting is not meant to be a punishment, so people are not meant to go on fasting if they are sick and truly cannot for the sake of their health. But there are other requirements instead. If one is not able to fast for the sake of their health, the alternate would be to feed others by either preparing food for them, or to financially provide for their meals.
The final question that I had been asked was about how the starting date and the ending date is determined. While the majority of the world follows the Gregorian calendar, the Islamic calendar follows the lunar calendar. So these dates have to do with the cycle of the moon. Around Ramadan, you may hear about Muslims discussing the "moon sighting." The first day of Ramadan traditionally begins when a person can see the first sliver of a new moon with the naked eye. That is also how the final day is determined. Some follow what the decision is in Saudi Arabica because that is the location of the Islamic holy cities Mecca and Medina. Others follow a calculation as to which day the new moon should begin. Some mosques may differ which day they start and finish. Not everyone decides the same way. So ultimately, there could be a one day difference in the start AND finish of Ramadan, depending on how it is decided. Ultimately, we all hope that the moon is sighted on the same day as the calculation predicts so that there isn't debate and controversy.
Ramadan ends after one full moon cycle. It will end when the first sliver of the moon is sighted, or after 30 days of fasting, whichever comes first. And then begins Eid al Fitr, which roughly translates to the holiday celebrating the end of fasting. Eid al Fitr is a three day celebration after a month of fasting where some may exchange gifts, some may have gatherings, etc. It is forbidden to fast during these days, so those who may have to make up fasts are not allowed to do so on these days.
This Ramadan is two weeks away. Many Muslims are preparing for fasting as well as getting their homes prepared for the holy month. I wish my fellow Muslims a wonderful Ramadan. And I hope that this was enlightening to those who are unfamiliar with Ramadan and Islam as a whole.
If you are interested in me discussing this sort of material more, you can find additional posts in my Ramadan 2020 tab. I would also hoping to write more about Ramadan once it begins.