Ramadan is underway for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. According to the Quran, Ramadan is when the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, making it the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. During this time Muslims are meant to re-engage with the faith, partaking in fasting, prayer, and sadaqah (voluntary charity that is not necessarily monetary).
The fast takes place from sunrise to sundown, and goes beyond abstaining from food and yes even water. Muslims also refrain from smoking, alcohol, sex, backbiting, gossip, and swearing–including road rage. Given that Ramadan is dictated by a lunar calendar, the month moves ahead each year, so this year, Ramadan takes place in the dead of summer, a particularly difficult time to fast.
So how does all this fasting actually work? Muslims wake before sunrise to have a meal known as suhur. After people pray the first of the five daily prayers, some go back to sleep, while others may read the Quran and start their days. At sunset the fast is broken with an elaborate dinner known as iftar which coincides with maghrib prayer, though many Muslims break their fast like the Prophet Mohammed did with dates and water. Mosques often provide free iftar meals. It is believed that giving or hosting an iftar meal is thawab, which can be thought of as blessings or Islamic brownie points for being a good citizen.
The casual observer might worry that a fast, especially during long July days, would be difficult for those who are young or unwell, but in fact there are parameters against fasting for those that are too young, the ill, people who are menstruating, pregnant, breastfeeding, and those who are traveling. This is important as fasting can alter the functioning of the body. For instance, women who are breastfeeding find that the composition of their breast milk changes, as fasting adjusts the concentration of lactose, sodium and potassium concentration. This can affect their health and that of their baby, which is why they are generally considered exempt.
So just what is the point of being hungry and thirsty all day? Fasting can remind people to have gratitude, and to empathize with those who have no other choice but hunger and thirst. Many Muslims also consider fasting a training of sorts, when bodily urges are put on the back burner.
The month acts as a spiritual and physical detoxification of sorts. Prior to the start of the month it seems like an impossible feat to eliminate a morning coffee, smoke break, chewing gum, or afternoon snack; at the end of the month it’s a matter of habit to not indulge in the aforementioned. Anyone who has ever tried a cleansing fast or elimination diet can attest to the way shifting one’s food intake can shift one’s perspective.