On the last evening before ramadan I get that feeling of quiet, happy anticipation that comes before the start of something you know is going to test you. I’ve always loved ramadan, loved the way it brings families together. It ties you to one another and a common goal. While the world outside is dark and still, you eat together, pray together. At the end of a long day, you take comfort in the knowledge that each knows how the other feels: taking it in turns to bring dates and a glass of water when the fast closes, over-looking irritability and sharing tasks to lessen fatigue – small signs of care and love are magnified by an empty belly somehow.
Fasting during ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam which are obligatory for all muslims.
- Shahadah – declaration of faith
- Salat – daily prayers
- Zakat – giving to charity
- Sawm – fasting
- Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca
It occurs at a slightly different time each year, moving back by about eleven days because Muslims follow a lunar calendar. During their lifetime, a person will experience hunger and thirst throughout the short days of winter and the long dry days of summer. Here in Canada the humidex has climbed into the mid forties in recent weeks and it’s fifteen slow hours from sunrise to sunset – a long time to go in the heat without a drink. You need to make some changes to avoid dehydration. Slowing down, favoring the shade and trying to keep cool become high priority.
Ramadan is a time to concentrate on spirituality. Eschewing food, drink, sex, cigarettes and any malicious or negative behaviour during daylight hours, focuses the mind on how much we have to be grateful for and teaches self-discipline, self-control and sacrifice – all elements of that oft-misused and thus incendiary term jihad. Jihad is defined simply as “struggle”. The struggle to master one’s own desires and impulses and to live as pure a life as possible is known as the Greater Jihad, and as the name suggests, it’s more important than the Lesser Jihad of trying to establish this purity in the world around us. After all, if everyone worked on the former, the latter would take care of itself. Did you know that during ramadan Muslims are forbidden to argue? We’re counselled to tell the antagonist we’re fasting and walk away.
Reading the Qur’an
We try to increase time spent in prayer and spiritual reflection. It’s an opportunity to nourish the soul and peel away the layers of trivial artifice that build up through our interactions with an often difficult and frustrating world. A time for spiritual cleansing and self-reformation, reconnecting with God through prayer, charity and kindness. We try to read the entire Qur’an during this month, it’s divided into thirty ajaza, parts of roughly equal length, so we can read one each day.
Muslims believe that good deeds receive greater blessings during ramadan, so many chose this time to give Zakat (a fixed percentage of the value of a person’s savings/jewelry) and also to perform extra acts of kindness, preparing food for the local mosque to distribute to the poor, for example. We believe that if a person helps someone break their fast by giving them sustenance when it’s over, they receive a reward for that fast, without diminishing the reward that the fasting person got for their fast, so you can see how preparing food for those fasting is a very blessed act.
Ramadan is incumbent upon all healthy adult muslims. Children and the sick are exempt as are the elderly, though they should try to feed the poor instead. Pregnant and nursing women, those travelling and women on their periods are excused, but should try to make up the missed fasts at a later date.
An average day…
During ramadan, every Muslim will have their prayer timetable somewhere easy to see. The times of the prayers, and therefore the fasts, change slightly almost daily, with the lengthening or shortening of the days. Muslims rise well before the sun, to eat, and pray fajr, the morning prayer. This pre-dawn meal is known as sehri and in our house is prepared and consumed with eyes half-closed and hushed voices so we don’t wake the children. Presently, sunrise is just before six, so we get up around four thirty. I can’t eat a big meal then, especially when I’m going back to bed for awhile. I try to eat something light but sustaining, and to drink plenty of water – for me, the thirst is worse than the hunger. After eating and praying, usually while sipping my last glass of water before the sun lightens the sky, I mentally declare my intention to fast. This is called niyat, it’s unnecessary to speak it aloud; what’s important is the firm intention in your heart.
Until the new routine is established, it’s difficult to remember not to taste a dish you’re preparing for seasoning or to try the children’s food to check the temperature. I remember one ramadan absently popping a strawberry from the garden into my mouth while weeding. It’s surprising how often we eat without thinking or even tasting, but because intentions are deemed as important as actions, a genuine mistake doesn’t affect the purity of the fast.
Throughout the day we make extra effort to observe zuhr, the noon prayer and asr in the afternoon and try to find some time for contemplation and reading of the Qur’an. Usual social activity is scaled down to allow for this and also because our energy levels are low!
Sunset is currently just before nine but by the end of the fast it will have moved to eight fifteen. You’re not supposed to prolong the fast any longer than it lasts. It’s not about how much discomfort you can bear, it’s about what you learn and how you grow as you undergo it. We break our fast promptly with dates and water as the prophet did before us. This is called iftar. We carry chewing gum for times when we’re out or driving. We pray maghrib, the dusk prayer, then enjoy our meal. Afterwards we try to pray tarawih, a set of prayers exclusive to ramadan. The last prayer of the day is isha, the night prayer, and depending on the time, some people will pray this after they’ve completed tarawih. Otherwise it’s said before bed.
It’s a long day and sometimes it feels like an effort to complete the prayers, but really it’s down to your perspective. It’s not supposed to be a trial. Prayer is about taking time for yourself, to find your peace and your centre. It’s an opportunity to refresh your motivation for the fast and a break in the busy day. The only casualty of a missed prayer is the one who missed it – as it was a chance for personal space and time. Ramadan is a short time in the course of a year and self-knowledge and spiritual development take time and effort. There’s no “fast-track” to enlightenment.
Reminders of food and eating are all around, especially here in Canada where people are always walking around with a drink or a snack, not to mention the mouth-watering aroma of barbecue that drifts on the evening breeze. Suddenly there are all sorts of things you have a burning desire to consume. I tell myself to wait until the end of the day but by then all it takes is a small meal to fill my stomach because it’s shrunk! If you eat too much you feel like sprawling in a chair instead of praying. You get used to preparing food for others but not eating yourself – after all, I still have to feed the kids. In England, K used to come home from work and watch the Food channel on TV, which I found absolute agony!
Over the course of the month your body adjusts to the new timetable. You’re expected to continue with life as normal. You try to get to bed earlier so that the early mornings don’t rob you of too much sleep. If your mouth becomes dry during the day it’s fine to rinse it out with water as long as you don’t swallow any. Looking at it simplistically, you’re only missing lunch, but the long gap between breakfast and dinner does cause poor concentration and irritability and it takes great effort sometimes, not to inflict that on those around you. I remind myself that this is a normal diet for people in some parts of the world and that humbles me. I remember a piece in the newspaper last year about how the muslim athletes in training for the Olympics still observed their fasts. This year I’ll still be running my 5km every other day. When it gets tough, I’ll think of those Olympic athletes and people like Terry Fox, who managed so much despite having a prosthesis, and I know I’ll find the strength.
In many muslim countries the working day is reduced to as little as five hours but elsewhere fasting muslims still need to maintain the nine to five timetable. It’s not uncommon in the Middle East for people to enjoy nightly feasts of lavish food. A variety of dishes are prepared and served to cater to all cravings and desires and there is a celebratory, festive atmosphere. Some consume more during Ramadan than at other times of the year and spend the month dining luxuriously at the houses of friends and relatives. This contradicts the spirit of Ramadan. It’s not about delaying indulgence and rewarding yourself with a party at the end of every day. It’s about sacrificing indulgence, acknowledging and being grateful for our comforts, and spiritual growth. The time for celebrations comes at the end of the month when Muslims all over the world celebrate Eid ul-Fitr with gifts, food, festivity and fun.