If your Muslim roommate gets up to cook at 3 a.m. tonight, don’t freak out. Most likely, they’re just preparing their pre-dawn meal before fasting starts for Ramadan.
Beginning today, many Muslim Americans will be observing Ramadan for a month by fasting and giving to charity. To help avoid offensive or weird encounters between you and your Muslim friends this June, we put together a list of things to know. Non-Muslims can help make the month of fasting easier on their Muslim friends and coworkers by knowing the basics of the holy month.
Ramadan is observed by 1.6 billion people worldwide every year. It's one of the five pillars of Islam, and followers (with a few exceptions) are required to fast in observance. Fusion spoke to 10 Muslim Americans to get the most essential facts—and most common misconceptions—about the month of Ramadan, which starts on June 6 and ends around July 6 depending on the Islamic lunar calendar.
To fast means to not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. Families gather and feast after sundown. Muslims are not starving themselves, but rather see fasting a way of cleansing the body and soul. “It is not about staying hungry and thirsty from sunrise to sunset,” said Habib Abdullah, 29, pediatric psychologist resident. By staying away from food and water, one can focus more on self-control and practicing patience, he said.
During this month odds are good you will see local Muslim American families eating at the local IHOP or Denny’s at 3 am.—the only time Muslims are allowed to eat and drink this month is before sunrise and after the sun goes down.
Fasting shows true sympathy with those who are poor and needy. "In fact, one of the purposes of Ramadan is to see how others in the world do not have the ability to give up food and water because they do not know when their next meal will be," said Syed H. Rizvi, a 24-year-old in Chicago.
Muslims also give up bad habits during Ramadan. Aside from staying away from food and water, Muslims are required to stay calm, collected, and patient. One of the misconceptions of Ramadan is the rise of violence in societies where the fasting is observed, but the opposite is true. “In fact, this is a month of regulating emotions—managing anger, controlling one’s tongue (backbiting, gossip), and controlling one’s judgment of others,” said Asima Silva, 41, from Massachusetts.
There is a long cannot-do list during fasting. One not only abstains from eating and drinking, but must also stay away from engaging in arguments and fights. Muslims are also required to stay away from sexual intercourse and sexually arousing activities during the day while fasting to be able to maintain concentration on the act of fasting and spiritual self-purification.
“It's not just about not eating, it is about giving and self-reflection,” said Yusra Said, 33, of Chicago.
But there are also exceptions. Some Muslims get a pass from the fasting. There is flexibility in terms of age, gender, medical conditions. Children and some elderly are not required to fast. Women on their menstrual periods are given a pass as well, due to the pain and lack of energy that accompanies the female throughout the cycle. Muslims with certain medical conditions are also given a pass on the fasting, but are required to feed one needy person for each day one doesn’t fast.
Ramadan, Christmas, and Hanukkah are alike. In addition to the delicious feasts and charity that is given to the needy, Nareman Taha, 40, reminds us that the three holidays “all resemble peace and love. It shows us how we all benefit from the fruits of our collective efforts,” said the co-founder and director of Arab American Family Services in Chicago.
Other than fasting, Muslims are required to give Zakat (charity) during the month of Ramadan. It is an obligation of the month and is known as Zakat Al-Fitr—money that must be distributed to poor and needy people before the last day of the month. Zakat Al-Fitr is a way of circulating wealth from the rich to the poor in society.
Finally, as a personal favor I ask you to try not tempt your Muslim friends by talking about the delicious lunch you had today.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."