Muslims in the Treasure Valley are awaiting the month of Ramadan, which will start in early June this year. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and it lasts 29 to 30 days based on the visual sighting of the newborn moon of each month. Recently, astronomical calculations have been used by some Muslims as an aid in predicting the visibility of the new moon on the first day of Ramadan, which is referred to as the Day of Doubt. In Islam, a new day starts at the sunset of the previous day, just as in Judaism.
During this religious month, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and having relations with their spouses during daylight hours. These restrictions are lifted after sunset. Muslims also refrain from any sinful behavior that may invalidate one’s fasting, such as lying, cursing, backbiting and fighting.
Some Muslims, such as those who are ill or traveling, pregnant women, nursing women, or women in their menses, are exempted from fasting but they must make up the missed days after the month of Ramadan is over. The elderly and the young are also exempted unless they can bear it with no adverse health effects. Those who cannot fast or for whom fasting could be dangerous are required to feed a meal to a poor or indigent person for every day they do not fast.
Fasting the month of Ramadan is one of five pillars of practice in Islam. It was made obligatory for Muslims in the second year of their migration from Mecca to Medina. Prior to this divine ordinance, Muslims used to fast erratically for a few days each month. When the Prophet arrived in Medina, he found the Jews fasting the day of Yom Kippur as a commemoration of their deliverance from Pharaoh in Egypt and as an atonement for their sins.
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The Prophet ordered Muslims to fast during that day, which happened to fall on the 10th day of the first lunar month. This day would still have coincided with the day of Yom Kippur nowadays if the Jewish calendar had not been altered to add an intercalary month every two or three years, for a total of seven times per 19 years.
The Jewish fast of Yom Kippur is different from the Islamic fast of each day of Ramadan. This traditional fast for Jews encompasses a full 24-hour period from the beginning sunset of Yom Kippur until the following sunset of the next day. Similarly to the laws in Islam, those who are too ill to fast are prohibited from fasting. Those who need to take medication are allowed to eat as are pregnant women or women who have just given birth.
An interesting fact in the Bible is that Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai when he went to get the first set of tablets (Deuteronomy 9:9) and again for 40 days and 40 nights when he went to get the second set of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 9:18).
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ fasted 40 days in the desert where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent, in Christianity, originated as a mirroring of fasting 40 days in preparation for Easter. Early Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (six days) during six weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (four days), thus making up 40 days in total. Orthodox Christians fasted these 40 days in a row.
Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It is still observed by some Western Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics. My colleague at Boise State University who is originally a Copt from Egypt does not perform a total fast as a Jew or a Muslim would. Rather, he accomplishes a partial fast by self-denying himself a food that would normally be allowed.
When Ramadan occurs during the summer time, it is a long and hard month. During each day of this month, the fast begins with a light pre-dawn meal which helps sustain Muslims throughout the day until the break of the fast at sunset. Nevertheless, this fast helps them to be more God-conscious, to have empathy for the suffering of others, to develop self-discipline and to appreciate their unity with all other Muslims fasting worldwide.
There are many similarities among the Abrahamic religions, including fasting as a spiritual experience. However, Americans are woefully ignorant of these similarities. According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, most Americans said they know little about Islam. Roughly 55 percent said they do not know very much (30 percent) or nothing at all (25 percent) about this religion and its five pillars of practice.
In this day and age where the world is becoming more interconnected, a working knowledge of world religions is essential in order to appreciate our near and distant neighbors who follow different religions but who share remarkable commonalities if only explored.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.