While many Americans are gorging themselves on cookies and candy, an estimated 7 million American Moslems are observing the fast of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is during this month that Moslems believe the prophet Mohamed received the Koran, Islam’s holy book, from Allah. During Ramadan, Moslems fast in order to focus on prayer and meditation and to study and celebrate the Koran. Because the Islamic calendar, which began in 610 C.E., is based on lunar cycles rather than solar, the starting and ending dates of Ramadan vary from year to year on western calendars; this year Ramadan begins ___ and ends on ____.
Many religions include fasting as part of religious observances. Early Jews, Christians and Moslems all practiced fasting. Early Christians, for example, fasted on Fridays to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ; later, a 40 fast preceding Easter evolved into today’s Lent. Some Jews still practice fasting on days such as Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
Fasting is not the same as starvation. During the Ramadan fast (siyam) Moslems are to abstain from food, drink, and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. Many Moslems also refrain from smoking during the fast. The fast officially begins when “the white thread becomes distinct to you from the black thread of dawn.” Moslems wake before dawn (fajr) for the Suhoor, a large meal to sustain them through the day. During daylight hours Moslems go about their business as normal. When the sun sets (maghrib) Moslems break the fast and can eat and drink normally through the night.
Contrary to the popular image of Islam as harsh and fundamentalist, the Ramadan celebration exhibits many of the charitable and compassionate values of the Koran. While healthy individuals are expected to adhere to a strict set of guidelines, exceptions are made for people who can’t comply with the fast. A pregnant or nursing woman, for example, may break the fast if she is concerned about the health of the child. Individuals who are seriously ill and whose medical condition would be worsened by fasting are also allowed to eat and drink during the day. Generally, when someone breaks the fast they are expected to either make-up the time when they are well or perform a charitable act such as feeding a poor family.
Travelers are also given a special exemption.
Young children are not required to fast as intensely; parents use Ramadan to slowly introduce the children to the traditions and practices of their faith by exposing them to the Moslem community.