What is Ramadan? What does it mean, and what happens during the month? For many of us outside of the Muslim faith it can be a bit of a mystery. Rather than looking at this academically, I thought it might be interesting to find out what Ramadan meant to one Muslim family in Derby, how they understood it, why they take part, what it involves, and what they get from it. This is one family’s perspective, but hopefully insightful, nonetheless.
Fatimah, Razak, Saahil, and Luqman, are a Muslim British-Pakistani family living in Normanton and they live their lives, as best as possible, in line with the Islamic faith.
I met up with them for a few hours and started off by trying to understand how Ramadan fitted into the structure of Islam, and how it came about.
The first thing that they pointed out to me was that, culturally, fasting pre-dated Islam, and is evident in Christianity, Judaism and most of the world’s main religions. Within Islam it is one of the 5 Pillars.
The other 4 being:
- Accepting that there is one God, and Mohammed as the Prophet/Messenger
- Praying 5 times a day – centred around the sunrise and sunset times
- Hajj – which is the pilgrimage to Mecca.
- Giving to charity – 2.5% of one’s surplus wealth
Ramadan is the name of one of the months in the Islamic calendar. This is based on a lunar cycle so changes each year relative to the standard set of dates by about 10 days. It is a time when good deeds are rewarded by 70 times compared to other times in the year.
“During Ramadan, for every good action, you’ll be rewarded, spiritually, 70 times by Allah…our declaration Is that we believe in the unseen, and the rewards are in the afterlife. The angels write down all of the good and the bad actions, so on the Day of Judgement they’ll be weighed up…so every good deed I do, will help me to get to heaven”
Are there people who are less devout during the year, and try and make up for it during Ramadan?
“Yes….The scholars say…’When you’ve got these problems around the world and you blame it on the non-Muslims you don’t consider the “1 month Muslims”. Being a Muslim should be for the whole life. So these problems are created within yourself, and while the problems may not follow them directly, they will affect somebody, as we see all Muslims as one unit, as a whole body”
I was fascinated about the notion of a reward and what it meant…
“Even we don’t know what the reward is for each fast that we do but, it’s a great reward that we get on the Day of Judgement. It’s Allah’s way of testing us as human beings when we are prepared not to eat or drink for the pleasure of our Creator”
Fasting during Ramadan was revealed to Mohammed in the Quran. It forbids drinking and eating between sunrise and sunset as well as abstinence from sex, swearing, back-biting. There are certain exemptions – for example pregnant women, children, people with poor health.
When does it start?
The words of Mohammed say “Sight the moon and Start your fast”. This relates to the sighting of the crescent moon. There seems to be many ways in which this can be interpreted, and also, it depends on where in the world this sighting is referenced. I thought that the crescent was a matter of mathematical certainty however taken literally from the Quran it has to be ‘sighted’. In cloudy UK this can be a problem, which is where the ambiguity creeps in. People in Morocco and South Africa who are on a similar line of longitude can help with the sighting.
What is the daily regime during Ramadan?
At this time of year the fasting starts around 2.30am which is the time of the first glimpses of light from the rising sun. No food or fluids are allowed through the mouth until the confirmed sundown around 9.15pm ( there are detailed daily tables based on different aspect angles that confirm the actual times. These change each day due to the change of sunrise/sunset times)
In June, in the UK, Ramadan is at its most challenging. After nearly 19 hours of fasting, when the clock ticks past the appointed time, there is the temptation to over-indulge. In the Razak household it’s measured. They start off with dates, prepare the food, have water and some fruits and then to prayers. Sometimes the men will go to the mosque for night prayers, and take food which earns additional rewards.
“It’s cleansing you from the inside, spiritually. It’s also about self-control, so for example for parents, you don’t shout at your kids. When you get hungry, you lose your cool and can start shouting – it’s about being in a state of calm and have control of yourself – it’s not easy. It’s about testing yourself”
They’ll try and get a few hours sleep and wake around 2am for the final prayers of the night and to eat something before the fast starts again.
“It’s really nice at the time of the morning, we all get up, we’re all tired. We’ll all have something to eat which Razak makes. It’s a bit of role reversal in our house at times as Razak regularly works on the night-shift. We’re all together….and it’s nice that we’re all committed and we all got up”
They have 2 sons Saahil and Luqman. Luqman is still too young to take part in the fast, and he will try to take part in mini-fasts, although he finds it difficult. Saahil, fasted last year for the first time, and that was his decision. It is important for him that he does it and to be part of the family tradition and to show his commitment to his faith. He did it out of free choice – he decided when the time was right.
The first 20 fasts are the same, and the final 10 see an increase in intensity of praying, in particular, and visiting the mosque. Some people go into more seclusion with no communications to get on a spiritual high.
How much of this is being done out of fear?
“You should be fearful of Allah’s reaction to you, if you’re disobeying him, but then you shouldn’t be doing it out of fear as that’s not the purpose of it”
“I do it for Allah’s pleasure, I want Allah to be happy with me, to bless me, and be successful in this world and the hereafter”
“Some Muslims find it very difficult to fast and sometimes I think it’s may be because they don’t have that connection with God, don’t practice, they maybe haven’t got the true belief, and that’s why they find it so hard? It’s not to criticise….”
On the 29th day people go out moon spotting, and then the next day is Eid which is the day of celebration.
Fatimah gets up early in the morning and starts preparing the food. Razak and the boys will go to the mosque in their freshly pressed white outfits, then to Razak’s mother’s house for some food. Then they come back home, and they are joined by Fatimah’s brothers – it is a time for family. It is also a time for them to be wearing new clothes, and the children are always expecting presents – it’s like Christmas! However, Fatimah’s view is:
“The essence is to celebrate, not to be extravagant. The month is to reflect and learn from it,,,,not to ignore it.”
10 weeks after Eid, is Hajj, and the following day is Big Eid when animals are sacrificed marking the time when Abraham was told by Allah to sacrifice his own son.
Talking to Fatimah and Razak about this whole subject made me reflect on my perception of it. Ramadan has many complications, technicalities and rules, but equally, many practical options that cater for modern living, and geographical location that facilitate people engaging with the process. Although this seems peculiar to Islam, fasting is a concept that is common through many faiths and cultures and is well understood as a way of physical recovery, and spiritual enhancement. The remnants of this in the Christian tradition is Lent which is a “lighter” version as it tends only to be abstinence of one aspect of life. But they all seem to be there as a form of personal challenge linked into a spiritual dimension.
Undoubtedly it is a major commitment for a whole month, and I could see how it would be a valuable way to help someone to “take stock” about what is important when we are regularly consumed in the chaos and materialism of the modern world.
Fatimah summed it up, nicely…
“I enjoy fasting, I feel strong, positive…and I get more done, but I do get tired. I’m more happy”