Everything you ever wanted to know about Ramadan (but were afraid to ask)
A Muslim professor of religious studies answers questions about the holy month of fasting, happening now
Abstaining from food for religious reasons is a practice found in various faiths. Many Jews keep a 25-hour fast for the Day of Atonement, also called Yom Kippur, and many Catholics refrain from eating meat on certain days in the weeks preceding Easter.
Adherents of the Muslim faith take things a bit further. They fast for 30 days, denying themselves food as well as liquids – even water – during daylight hours. In a stress-inducing world that often operates at a breakneck pace and encourages grab-as-you-go sustenance, such restrictions can be tricky, to say the least.
A professor in the departments of religious studies and politics/international relations, Iqbal Akhtar explains how Muslims around the world embrace the challenges and opportunities of Ramadan.
Why give up the typical eating regimen?
Fasting slows the body and transitions it out of ‘normal’ time into spiritual time. It takes you out of your daily routines and concerns and worries because, at a basic level, you simply do not have the energy to do as much as you usually do.
Beyond that, you’re supposed to become more aware of the spiritual world and also of greater obligations in life. You’re getting off of the hamster wheel of just working because most of our workdays are filled only with the outward, the external stimuli that we’re constantly dealing with and responding to. Ramadan helps you cultivate the inner by reading more prayers, participating in communal prayers as well as community gatherings and dinners in the evenings. Usually, people try to read the whole Quran [Islamic scripture] during the month. It's divided into 114 chapters in 30 parts, so you could read one part every night until the last night.
What is your daily experience of Ramadan?
I try not to go out of the house as much. If possible, my wife and I do things on Zoom rather than in person. We frontload our day, decrease physical activity and then also just decrease work generally and devote time to prayer or something else.
Something that makes it tough for me is caffeine withdrawal during the day, which is so horrific the first couple of days of the month. I have coffee before dawn and then have to have a cup waiting for me right after sunset.
What do you like to eat during Ramadan? Is there something typical?
In the morning, you have to wake yourself up very early, and then it’s hard to eat a lot when you’re groggy. Dates and water are what people usually start the day with. When I was a kid, I used to start with cheesecake. That would be my thing. I used to really enjoy sweets, and we would get these really nice Cheesecake Factory cheesecakes, the fancy ones that have all the stuff.
The other thing you do during Ramadan is make the evening meal special. Usually after the afternoon prayer, you'll start preparing the food for dinner. I like baking, so I'll make breads and things like that. A lot of times when you fast, you can’t eat that much because your stomach kind of constricts. We put out all this food in anticipation of the evening meal, and then by the time you get to it, you can barely eat anything. You end up just kind of grazing a bit until you go to sleep.
I understand that Ramadan is set by the lunar calendar and that the 30-day fasting period begins a bit earlier each year. That means the number of daylight hours, at least in many parts of the world, including ours, varies annually. How does that affect obervers of the faith?
Islam developed as a religion in the tropical zone, near the equator, so basically the days there are the same length year-round. In other parts of the world, however, in the summer, days are long. If you’re in Norway or Sweden in the summer, the daylight can go on for 16-18 hours, and it’s too much. So you have to figure out, within Islamic law, what to do. Do we fast according to our time or instead, for instance, fast according to the time in Mecca [considered the holiest of Muslim cities]?
What should guests expect at the iftar dinner, the evening fast-breaking meal, that will be celebrated on campus?
Similar to the Jewish tradition of inviting people to the Passover seder meal, American Muslims have now created the tradition of an interfaith iftar, so that those of other faiths can come and break bread, and that helps create community. We’re going to have speakers – Christian, Jewish and Muslim - talk about fasting across faith traditions. Then there will be a call to prayer, breaking of the fast by eating dates and drinking water – you can’t have an iftar without dates – and then the feast starts and you’ll just hang out and talk to people.
I understand that the final iftar dinner, on the last day of Ramadan, is called Eid al-Fitr and a major holiday. How will you celebrate?
I have been blessed to go back home to Slidell, Louisiana, each year to observe the holiest days of the end of the month with my family and lead the community in prayer. The end of Ramadan comes with a feast during which communities and families gather in parks, mosques and homes for our version of Christmas. We honor our ancestors and visit each other’s homes to renew the bonds of family and friendship.
Ramadan at a glance
as explained by Iqbal Akhtar
Ramadan is the time of Muslim thanksgiving. Enter almost any mosque in the world at sunset this month, and you can join the faithful in an iftar, a free dinner to break the fast. In the mosque and at home, families organize elaborate meals in the evening and simpler meals in the morning to change the ordinary course of the day into a month in which the body is trained for mindful spiritual progress, which grows each year throughout a lifetime.
Fasting is not just about not eating and drinking. Even for those who cannot fast during this month, such as travelers, pregnant women, the infirm and those not able or willing, it is a time for reflection and prayer. It is about cultivating character. During the fast, you are encouraged to remember God in each breadth, thought, word and deed.
This month is a time to practice one of God’s Quranic commandments: gratitude. Fasting reminds us to support and love those left behind: the homeless, the hungry, the incarcerated, the near of kin, the orphan, the poor and the refugee.