By Usama Dandare
As the holy month of Ramadan begins yesterday, Muslims all over the world embarks on a 29-30 days fasting, from waking up in the early morning hours at dawn for breakfast, to waiting until the call to prayer at sunset for launch and dinner. It’s imperative to shed more lights on why Muslims fast and what the month of Ramadan stands for, at least for the emphasis of educating our brothers and sisters from other religions. This piece will attempt to discuss in brief the concept of Ramadan fasting, its religious benefits, and perhaps medicinal importance:
Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, it’s the month in which the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, was revealed to the last prophet of Islam after Jesus Christ (PBUH) – Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). Being the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, or the Hijri calendar based on the lunar cycle, Ramadan began when Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina in AD622, and return once annually about 11 days earlier than the previous year. It sometimes falls in winter months when the fasts are short, and in summer months when the fasts are long. Ramadan is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Holy Quran to Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) and this annual observance is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, other pillars include shahadah, which is the declaration of faith; salat, the five daily prayers; zakat, or almsgiving; and the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. While fasting from dawn until sunset, Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinks, smoking, backbiting, long arguments, lying, fighting and engaging in sexual relations; Muslims are also mandated to refrain from other behavior that could be perceived as sinful, such as swearing, engaging in disagreements, and unnecessary noise-making.
Several Muslims around the world observe fast between dawn to sunset in the month of Ramadan, they do so not for losing fat or any medical value, but for spiritual benefits as it is ordained by the Holy Quran:
“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you, as it was prescribed for those before you (i.e. Jews, & Christians) so that you may (learn) self-restraint.” (Q2:183)
Fasting does not mean Muslims retreat from their daily routine, rather they are encouraged to continue as normal in their work and usual activities. In fact, this is where the challenge of patience and endurance comes in, because fasting isn’t merely a physical ritual, but primarily a time for reflection and spiritual recharging. During the fast, Muslims believe that their desires are curbed and that they can gain understanding of how those who are less privileged than them feel. It’s also considered a ‘temptation free month’ – as both Satan and the evil spirits are chained and incarcerated by God throughout the holy month – to increase one’s patience, closeness to God and generosity towards others. The month of Ramadan is also a time of unity; it is the custom for Muslims to invite their neighbours and friends to share their evening meal – iftar – and recite special Tarawih prayers in congregation. It is also a time for Muslims to reconnect with the Qur’an, which is the word of God.
Fasting during Ramadan is fardh (“obligatory”) for adult Muslims, except those who are suffering from an illness, travellers, the elderly, pregnant women, nursing mothers and those going through menstrual bleeding. Healthy Muslim men and women are required to fast during the month according to Islamic teachings. People exempt from fasting during Ramadan can make up the missed fasts later. But if a person is not able to fast at all – particularly if that is for health reasons – one can compensate by feeding a needy person for each of the day they do not fast. It’s worthy to note that Muslims do not fast continuously throughout the month, they eat before dawn and break their fast at sunset each day.
While fasting during the holy month of Ramadan remains an avenue for introspection and spiritual renewal for all Muslims around the world, scientists have found that short periods of fasting – if properly controlled – can have a number of health benefits, as well as potentially helping overweight people. Medical experts encourages fasting Muslims to keep hydrated and have the right proportion of carbohydrates, fat and protein in between fasts, however tempting, but may in fact lead to gaining weight. So with prolonged fasting of many days or weeks, the body starts using protein for energy, and after a few days of the fast, higher levels of endorphins – hormones related to mood – appear in the blood and can make a person more alert and give an overall feeling of general mental wellbeing. Fasting has been proven to be an effective detoxification therapy as toxins will break down and pass out of the body. Also, it is ideal for both the overweight and underweight: for the overweight – deposited fat gets used and burns down, facilitating weight loss. While for the underweight – fasting normalizes the digestive system and equip the body to digest and assimilate nutrients.Fasting can also clear many skin problems due to the elimination of toxic materials, and has advantages in getting rid of addictions and habits like smoking and drinking alcohol.
Depending on which part of the world, Muslims have varying Ramadan customs, based on their cultures, but, the Islamic injunctions remained the same and unchangeable across the globe, which include: Eating and drinking at sahoor, the pre-fast meal, just before dawn; not delaying breaking the fast at sunset, which is iftar time; breaking the fast with an odd number of fresh dates, or dried dates if none are available, or a few sips of water; searching for the “Night of Power” or Laylat al-Qadr – a blessed night which according to Islamic tradition was the night when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to Prophet Muhammad by God, and falls within the last 10 nights of Ramadan.
Ramadan begins when a crescent moon is sighted on the last day of Sha’aban (the 8th month in the Islamic calendar), but in a situation where the moon was not sighted for lack of visibility or other factors, the month of Ramadan automatically begins the following night whether or not the crescent moon is seen. Do you know that the month of Ramadan starts on different days across the world? This differences over the start and end dates of Ramadan from one country to another, are basically as a result of variations in the sighting of the moon due to time differences between one country/region to the next. In places where it is not possible to see the crescent moon, Muslims begin fasting according to the closest place where the moon has been sighted, while other scholars rely on the calculations of astronomers. However, some Islamic scholars have called for Muslims to be united, and start the month of fasting based on sighting of the moon in the holy city of Mecca, which several other scholars rejected.
In places with no sunsets, like in the Arctic Circle and in Northern Finland where the sun remains visible at midnight and doesn’t set at all for 60 days during summer, Muslims in those places are permitted to follow more reasonable dawn and sunset times of other countries, likewise Muslims living in the most northerly regions of Alaska can use the dawn and sunset times of another part of America where “day is distinguishable from night”.
Reykjavik, Iceland, has the longest hours of fasting in the world where the fast will be about 21 hours 57 minutes long in the beginning of the month of Ramadan, with a fast starting at 2:03am and finishing at midnight. While Sydney, Australia, has the shortest hours of fasting in the world where a fasting day will be about 11 hours 24 minutes long at the start of Ramadan, with a fast starting at 5.29am and finishes at 16:53pm.
The month of Ramadan ends on the 29th day if a crescent moon for the month of Shawwal (the 10th month in the Islamic calendar) is sighted, in a situation where the moon of Shawwal was not sighted, Ramadan automatically ends on the 30th day. The next day after the month of Ramadan becomes the first day of Shawwal: a day when Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking of the fast, which marks the end of Ramadan. According to Islamic tradition, the angels call it the day of prizegiving because all those who fasted are rewarded by God on this day, and so it is common to hear Muslims greet each other with Eid Mubārak (Happy Eid) and it is forbidden to fast on this day. It is Islamic to celebrate Eid with a small sweet breakfast, and to give charity before Eid prayers in congregation, and many Muslims celebrate by giving gifts, wearing new or clean clothes, and visiting friends and family. It’s simply a day of love, unity, peace and a day to put smiles on the faces of the needy and the vulnerable ones among the society and give them a sense of belonging. This marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the end of the Ramadan fast.
In a nutshell, understanding what Ramadan is and the sanctity of the fast is of paramount importance to both Muslim or non-Muslims, for the goals of fasting is to teach patience, discipline, modesty and spirituality. Whoever is observing a lengthy period of fasting must stay healthy, eat wisely and sleep enough.
Conclusively, there are practices or habits that all Muslims observing the Ramadan fast need to adopt in order to maintain a balance and healthy life throughout this holy month and beyond:
- Avoid eating an excess of carbohydrates.
- Avoid an intake of excessive sugary and spicy food, and also stay away from caffeine drinks such as coke, coffee or tea.
- Avoid snacks high in salt like chips or nuts.
- Take dinner only before Ishaa and after Taraweeh prayers, so the time afterwards is spent in Ibaadah, prayers and dhikr.
- Women should not be made to cook all day: hence, keep the meals simple and humble, so they too can get the time to engage in equal Ibaadah and prayers, during their day, and post-Iftaar as well.
- When considering dinner, it’s very important to include food varieties like: Meat/Bean, Bread/Cereal, Milk, Vegetable, Fruits among others.
In this holy month of love and peace, permit me to end with an apology to whomever I have offended in one way or the other either knowingly or unknowingly through the course of my work or interactions with folks both online and offline, please accept my unreserved apologia. And at the same time wishing all my readers, friends, well-wishers, colleagues, family, and the entire Muslim umma a blissful, bountiful, glorious, and a happy Ramadan fast. May the Almighty Allah – the God of Prophet Muhammed (S.A.W), the God of Prophet Jesus Christ (PBUH), the God of Prophet Moses (PBUH), and the God of Prophet Abraham (PBUH) accept all our worships during this holy month and beyond, and spare our lives to witness more and more Ramadans ahead.