The ninth Islamic month is Ramadan, a time of spiritual connection between a Muslim's heart and God through prayer and contemplation of the Quran.
The cornerstone of Ramadan is the fast. Briefly, a fasting Muslim rises before dawn for an early meal with plenty of water. The dawn prayer is performed, and then maybe some reading of the Quran, or going back to bed before work or school. The fasting Muslim goes about his or her normal day: work, school, and caring for children, but without the benefit of food or water.
At sunset, the fasting person will break his or her fast by thanking God, "Oh God, I fasted for You and I believe in You and I break my fast with Your sustenance," and then traditionally he or she will eat a date and drink water, milk, or juice. He or she will then pray the Mahgrib, or sundown prayer, and eat dinner.
Afterwards, many Muslim families go to their mosque for the Isha (evening) prayer. Many also stay for the special Taraweeh prayer, where one thirtieth of the Quran is recited each night, and therefore it is heard in its entirety at the conclusion of this month of fasting. This summer, Taraweeh prayers are finished around 11 pm.
By the end of the month, a fasting Muslim is usually reluctant to see it end. Having discipline over our bodies, focusing on our relationship with God, striving to give in charitable acts, and practicing extreme patience with ourselves, our family, and our friends gives fasting Muslims a tremendous feeling of well-being and empowerment. Ramadan usually has the effect of a total spiritual reset.
How can you be a good neighbor to your Muslim friends, relatives, students or co-workers? You can begin by respecting their dedication to their faith during this month. Congratulate a Muslim by saying, "Happy Ramadan," and watch how a smile can warm the room from such a simple recognition. I've outlined some practical advice for teachers, co-workers and visitors to a Muslim home or mosque during Ramadan to help those who wish to be good neighbors.
Educators: School will begin towards the end of the fasting month in most places around the country; children as young as 10 may be attempting to fast. Teens probably will be fasting, and teachers and school administrators should allow the kids to spend their lunch period in the library and afford them a quiet place for their midday prayer. Don't assume all children will be fasting; let them or their parents tell you if they are participating.
Muslim students are usually a small minority and may feel shy about discussing their faith traditions, but teachers can make a tremendous difference by simply recognizing Islam and Muslims in positive ways in the classroom. The Islamic months follow the lunar calendar, so the dates for these important religious observations come about 10 days sooner every year. Lumping Ramadan in with a "holidays around the world" lesson plan in December is too late. Let your Muslim students know you value their traditions by recognizing it with a short lesson sometime before the end of Ramadan, (around September 10 this year). Many kids will say they don't want to be singled out as "the Muslim" in the class, but they should appreciate having their tradition recognized as part of America's cultural quilt. There are two picture books about Ramadan recommended for elementary school educators on my blog, written for educators and Muslim parents.
Co-workers: If you work with a fasting Muslim, your curiosity about their traditions and general interest in how their month is progressing will be enough to show support and respect. Many Muslims have wonderful memories and interesting stories to tell of their first fast, or of their family Ramadan traditions; ask them to tell you one.
Iftar invitations: If you are invited to attend an iftar (the meal for breaking fast) at a Muslim friend's home, go! You'll be treated to wonderful food and will experience firsthand some lovely faith traditions. If you wish to bring a small gift, remember that alcohol or pork products are both forbidden for Muslims. Remove your shoes upon entering the home, and greet everyone in the room. Many Muslims do not shake hands with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and some Muslim social gatherings tend to be loosely gender-separated, so be prepared to part ways with your spouse.
When the adhan (the Arabic call to prayer) is heard, it is time to break the fast. Take a date and enjoy a sip of water in a spirit of camaraderie.
Whether you are at a large gathering or just visiting a family, they will all likely gather to pray, either right after this quick refreshment, or maybe after the meal itself. The prayer entails lining up in straight lines with the men in the front and the women in the back rows, with one person leading the prayer. The congregational prayer takes about five minutes; afterwards, many will remain sitting for a few moments of personal contemplation of God, and most will then perform an individual prayer ritual and then return to the gathering.
If you attend an iftar at the mosque, much of the above description also applies. You should wear modest attire (for women, long sleeves with slacks or a long skirt are appropriate). Some Muslim communities will require that women cover their hair in the mosque, so a light scarf to drape over the head is recommended. The iftar may be held in a community room, or in the prayer space itself. Many mosques are converted churches or community centers, making each mosque's iftar unique. Finally, you will be invited to view the Maghrib prayer service and share the community dinner afterward. Be curious and open, ask questions, and enjoy yourself.
Given the current anti-Islam climate around the country in the media and on the ground, warm gestures of respect and friendship will be returned in multitudes by America's Muslims.