The Fast of Ramadan
Once each year, Muslims participate in the next pillar of Islamic worship: a period of intense spiritual devotion known as the fast of Ramadan. Muslims are commanded to fast during the daylight hours of an entire month.
Ramadan is a period of reflection, generosity, and sacrifice observed by all Muslims at the same time, all over the world. The Islamic fast is a complete one, allowing no food, drink, smoking, or intimacy during the daytime hours of the month. From dawn until dusk, Muslims must practice self-control and focus on prayers and devotion.
Muhammad once said, “If one does not abandon falsehood in words and deeds, Allah has no need for his abandoning of food and drink.” It is therefore imperative that the fasting person not only refrains from food and drink, but also from foul speech, lying, arguing, and the like.
Benefits of Ramadan
During the fast, Muslims experience hunger and thirst and learn to sympathize with those in the world who have little to eat. They come to appreciate the blessings that Allah grants them. Through increased charity during the month, Muslims develop feelings of generosity and goodwill toward others. And since all Muslims in the world are undergoing the same experience at the same time, this practice strengthens community bonds throughout the Muslim world.
Timing of Ramadan
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar; it lasts for 29 or 30 days, depending on the particular year's lunar cycle. Because the Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, fixed times for the fasting month change from year to year. Over the course of time, the month occurs in all seasons. All Muslims, no matter where in the world they live, have the opportunity to experience fasting during long summer days and short winter days over the course of their lifetimes.
Who Is Required to Fast?
The Qur'an commands as follows: “Ramadan is the month in which the Qur'an was sent down, as a guide to mankind, and clear signs for guidance and judgment between right and wrong. So every one of you who is present at his home during that month should spend it in fasting. But if anyone is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period should be made up by days later” (Qur'an 2:185).
Therefore, every Muslim is required to fast, with the following exceptions:
Those who are suffering from a temporary illness
The elderly or chronically ill
Women in menses or post-childbirth bleeding
Pregnant or nursing women
Children who have not yet reached adolescence
If possible, missed days are to be made up at a later time. If the reason for exception is long-term, then the missed days may be compensated for by giving in charity enough to feed one poor person for each day of fasting.
Children are not required to fast until they reach puberty. However, many children like to join in the activities of the family and try to fast for a day or part of a day. Sometimes they will fast on the weekends, for example, or will fast from noon until sunset. This is encouraged as practice for the day when fasting will be incumbent upon them.
A Typical Day of Ramadan
On a day of fasting, Muslims rise before dawn for an early meal called suhoor. This light meal is intended to nourish the body through the rigorous daylong fast. The fast begins with the predawn call to prayer. Muslims continue through their daily lives of work, school, or other commitments, conscious of the limitations of fasting, and striving to be on their best behavior. Muslims continue to observe the daily prayers as usual and often spend part of the day reading chapters of the Qur'an.
As sunset approaches, Muslims often gather together as family or community to break the fast and enjoy a meal together at the end of the day. Muslims break their fast just as the call to prayer for the sunset prayer is heard. Following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims often break their fast by eating dates and drinking some milk. After the sunset prayers, they sit down together for an evening meal called fitoor (technically, “breakfast”).
Muslims observe two holidays during the year. The first falls at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr, or Festival of Fast-Breaking), and the second falls at the end of the pilgrimage season (Eid al-Adha, or Festival of Sacrifice).
In the evening, Muslims gather at the mosque for special prayers called taraweeh. These extra prayers are offered each night of Ramadan. Every evening, a section of the Qur'an will be read in a long prayer, so that by the end of the month the entire Qur'an will have been heard. Muslims also spend time visiting with friends and relatives before retiring for the night to rest before starting the fast again the next day.