Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, is upon us once more. More than 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world—more than 23% of the world population—is celebrating this month in some way or another. In the United States, anywhere from 1 to 6 million Muslims (depending on the estimates), will be participating in Ramadan. This year Ramadan has already begun with some terrible news involving Muslims: two girls were harassed for being Muslim (only one of them actually was) in Portland by a white supremacist, and their defenders were killed.
In horrific situations like these, when Muslims – especially Muslim women – feel fearful to venture out of their homes, non-Muslim allies can and should make the effort to understand their religious practices. Ramadan is one of those times when non-Muslims have many questions, but aren’t quite sure how to ask them. It’s time for a primer on this month and all that it entails, so that rather than asking questions about the basics, allies can be prepared and work together to keep Muslims safe and protected. Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about Ramadan, and their most comprehensive responses:
What is Ramadan, exactly?
Ramadan is one of the 12 months of the Islamic calendar, special to Muslims because the Quran was first revealed during this month. As a celebration of this momentous event when we believe God revealed His word, Muslims fast during this month from dawn to dusk. This doesn’t mean we fast for 30 days (this is a common, although weird assumption) but rather that we fast every day for 30 days. We wake up before sunrise and eat a meal called suhoor, and then fast the entire day until sunset, when the fast is broken by a meal called iftar. Repeat for the entire month.
So it’s a complete fast? Not even water?
Yes. It is a complete fast, unlike Lent but not unlike Yom Kippur. And yes, not even water may pass our lips during the hours of the fast. This is in no way unhealthy for our bodies. However, fasting is only mandatory for healthy adults whose bodies are able to endure the strenuous nature of the fast without negative consequences. The health benefits of fasting are only just being realized, such as this study here and here.
Why do some Muslims not fast?
This can be a very sensitive question, so if you see a Muslim eating during Ramadan please don’t ask why. Muslim women do not fast during menstruation, pregnancy or breastfeeding, and these can be a source of embarrassment to them if they belong to Asian or Arab cultures. This Twitter storm by a young Muslim man who shared his experiences asking why women in his family weren’t fasting is hilarious yet important. Also, people who are ill or who have conditions that may be exacerbated by fasting, do not fast. Travelers and children are similarly exempt from fasting. But apart from religious reasons, there may be Muslims who just don’t fast because they don’t want to, just like there are Catholics who don’t give up meat during Lent
Why do Muslims fast, really?
The real reason for the month of Ramadan is explained beautifully and succinctly in the Quran thus: “O ye who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you even as it was prescribed to those before you, so that you may become righteous (Quran 2:183). During Ramadan one doesn’t only abstain from food and drink, but more importantly from bad habits and behaviors. The hunger and thirst one feels is supposed to develop patience, self-restraint and gratitude. Also, while fasting one prays more, gives to charity and otherwise tries to become closer to God through good works.
What can I do to support Muslims during Ramadan?
This isn’t very different from supporting Muslim friends, neighbors or co-workers during other months of the year. Muslims need to feel like a normal, vital part of the United States, just like everyone else. This means not asking questions or making comments that make them feel out of place. Instead, be considerate that many Islamic practices – like fasting, or praying, or the hijab – may be difficult for them because of the current Islamophobic atmosphere in the country.
One easy but essential thing that non-Muslims can do for Muslims during Ramadan is to participate in interfaith iftar events that may be held at mosques or community centers during this month. These are great opportunities to meet like-minded people and learn about different traditions, and they give the message to Muslims that their rituals and religious traditions are just as special as others.
This article was first published in Wear Your Voice Magazine here.