A Non-Muslim’s Guide to Ramadan
by Saadia Faruqi
I am an interfaith activist, and the number one question people ask me around this time of the year is about Ramadan. There are plenty of articles about this month, but for many non-Muslims, Ramadan remains a mystery. Here is a quick and easy guide about Ramadan, from someone who not only fasts regularly but also teaches about it.
First, the basics about what Ramadan is and isn’t:
Ramadan is not Lent.
Many people from Christian backgrounds assume that Ramadan is exactly like Lent. Although there are similarities — giving up something precious for the sake of God, more worship, less frivolous activity — there are also many key differences. Ramadan is a complete fast from everything, even water, and is uniformly practiced by Muslims around the world.
Ramadan does not occur only in the summer.
For the last several years, summer has become synonymous with Ramadan. In some countries, such as my birthplace, Pakistan, heatwaves affect fasting Muslims adversely. But the truth is that Ramadan, like every other Islamic month, moves forward by about ten days each year because it follows the lunar cycle. So there will be times when we fast in shorter, colder months as well — good news for those in hot climates.
Ramadan is a complete fast.
And no, it is not easy. For thirty days during this holy month, Muslims eat a small meal before sunrise (called suhoor), then fast completely until sunset, when they break the fast (called iftar). This is a pretty strenuous exercise, so it’s an obligation only for healthy adults whose bodies are able to take the fast without any negative consequences. Many people wonder about this aspect of fasting, asking how Muslims are able to function without even water. I will be honest: it’s difficult, but not impossible. When you give up food and drink you learn much about yourself and your own capacity. You learn patience, perseverance, commitment and so much more. It is a truly amazing experience.
Ramadan is more than just fasting.
Yes, during Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. The true fast is one from bad behavior, negative comments, abusive language and actions. Muslims also pray more, give more charity and work tirelessly in their communities, all while fasting.
How to act during Ramadan.
If you are not a Muslim, here’s a cheat sheet for how to act around your Muslim friends, co-workers or neighbors during this holy month. I have a few friends who actually fast with me a few days during Ramadan, but that level of solidarity is not possible for everyone. Other things you can do in Ramadan to show that you are a true supporter of Muslims are below:
Don’t invite your Muslim friend to that delicious lunch buffet.
Before I started my home-based writing business, I worked at a small nonprofit where lunches were frequent and lots of fun. Volunteers and donors would often drop by with loads of food as a thank you for the work we were doing. Many corporations are the same way: kitchens and employee breakrooms full of cakes, muffins, donuts, sandwiches and soda. For Muslim employees at Ramadan this is often a difficult time, and a little understanding and support would go a long way. Of course, once the sun sets and the fast is complete, nothing is stopping your Muslim friend from enjoying the food.
Don’t judge your Muslim neighbors if their kids are running wild.
Ramadan is a physically exhausting time. Adults wake up before dawn and often go to sleep very late at night after special prayers called tarawih in the mosque. They are typically functioning on very few hours of sleep and, with summer in full swing, your Muslim neighborhood kids may be taking full advantage of their parents’ exhaustion. Let them have fun, keep an eye on them if you can and your neighbors will be eternally grateful.
Visit with your Muslim friends at sunset.
More and more Muslim communities are holding interfaith iftars at a variety of locations. They want to answer questions about fasting, showcase the friendly side of their community and help dispel myths and stereotypes. Just this Ramadan alone, I have seen invitations for interfaith iftars at a Pakistani restaurant, several mosques, a church and a community center. Many people open up their homes during this time as well, and Facebook is full of such event invites. If you can go to one of these events, you should jump at the chance. You will learn a lot right from the horse’s mouth (and eat delicious food!).
Give Muslims a break.
From political rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail to media stereotypes, Muslims are bombarded with negativity from all quarters. The Southern Poverty Law Center explains that incidents of hateful bullying among school students has gone up significantly since the presidential race started, and a 2015 report by the Huffington Post shows that more than half of all Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam. In this environment just lending a sympathetic ear and telling your Muslim friend or colleague that he/she is loved and respected may make a tremendous difference in their life.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, cultural sensitivity trainer and author of the short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan. She was born in Pakistan and now lives in Houston, Texas. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.