Islam is the world’s second largest religion after Christianity and has more than 1 billion followers. Islam originated in Arabia and has spread all over the world. More than a quarter of the world’s population celebrate Ramadan as a result.
Muhammad is, according to Muslims, the final prophet in a line of prophets (including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus) who were chosen by God to act as messengers and teach mankind. Muslims believe there is one all-knowing God, and people can achieve salvation by following his commandments. In Arabic, Islam means “submission” or “surrender” (to God).
A series of formal acts of worship, known as the Five Pillars of Islam, are fundamental to the lives of Muslims. The pillars include shahada (a declaration of faith: “There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”); prayer (Muslims pray five times a day); zakat (charitable giving); fasting and pilgrimage (Muslims are supposed to make a trip, or “hajj,” to the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at least once in a lifetime if they are physically and financially able).
Ramadan, Arabic Ramaḍān, in Islam, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and the holy month of fasting. It begins and ends with the appearance of the crescent moon. Because the Muslim calendar year is shorter than the Gregorian calendar year, Ramadan begins 10–12 days earlier each year, allowing it to fall in every season throughout a 33-year cycle.
This year, Ramadan starts at sunset on March 22nd, and continues for 30 days until April 20th.
Ramadan, however, is less a period of atonement than it is a time for Muslims to practice self-restraint, in keeping with ṣawm (Arabic: “to refrain”), one of the pillars of Islam (the five basic tenets of the Muslim religion).
After the sunset prayer, Muslims gather in their homes or mosques to break their fast with a meal called ifṭār that is often shared with friends and extended family. The ifṭār usually begins with dates, as was the custom of Muhammad, or apricots and water or sweetened milk.
Ṣawm can be invalidated by eating or drinking at the wrong time, but the lost day can be made up with an extra day of fasting. For anyone who becomes ill during the month or for whom travel is required, extra fasting days may be substituted after Ramadan ends. Volunteering, performing righteous works, or feeding the poor can be substituted for fasting if necessary. Able-bodied adults and older children fast during the daylight hours from dawn to dusk. Pregnant or nursing women, children, the old, the weak, travelers on long journeys, and the mentally ill are all exempt from the requirement of fasting.
The end of the Ramadan fast is celebrated as Eid al-Fitr, the “Feast of Fast-Breaking,” which is one of the two major religious holidays of the Muslim calendar (the other, Eid al-Adha, marks the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to perform at least once in their lives. Eid al-Fitr is the most important of Muslim holidays and is celebrated by friends greeting one another, giving of presents, wearing of new clothes, visiting graves of lost loved ones.
How can you recognize Ramadan and Eid for someone who is celebrating?
- Suspend your disbelief. When fasting during Ramadan, Muslims don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sundown. Yes, this includes water. While this may come as a surprise to you, it can be othering for individuals to experience your reaction of shock and disbelief.
- Don’t ask why someone isn’t fasting.
- This is actually a pretty invasive question. There are actually a number of reasons Muslims may not be fasting. Some may be premised in the faith tradition, and others may be entirely personal. Either way, an individual’s reasoning for not fasting is not for public consumption unless they choose to share that information.
- Don’t worry about eating or drinking in front of your friend. While consideration is appreciated, Ramadan and fasting are not only about food and drink but about self-control as well. I recommend asking your Muslim friend or colleague what they prefer. Some will appreciate not being around you while you eat
- Just because you do intermittent fasting, doesn’t mean that you know what Ramadan is like. Keep your rhetoric to yourself. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down, this includes water. Feel free to relate in, but don’t equate experiences. Instead, ask thoughtful, open-ended questions about what fasting/Ramadan means to the person.
- Don’t bring up weight loss. Fasting during Ramadan is a faith practice and spiritual experience, not about weight management. In addition, twisting it to be about weight supports a culture of thinspiration and fatphobia that is harmful and destructive, especially if you don’t know an individual’s history.
- Be mindful! They may be tired and/or cranky (even hangry) from lack of sleep, food, and water. Try not to take it personally. But do ask how you can support! If you’re a manager or supervisor, chat with your employees about flexible work hours that may be conducive to their altered eating and sleeping schedules, such as work-from-home days or coming in later so that they can get extra rest in the morning. Be conscientious of how much physical energy is required for an activity or outing you may propose, the time of day in which meetings or events may fall, and the settings in which you are doing them.
- The greetings Muslims use are “Ramadan Mubarak” and/or “Ramadan Kareem,” which may vary according to language, region, and sect, amongst other factors. These roughly translate to wishing someone a Blessed Ramadan or Generous Ramadan, respectively.
- On Eid, greet them with formal embraces and offer each other greetings of “Eid Mubarak,” or “Have a blessed Eid.”