Finding purpose in fasting during Ramadan

Said Ahmed-Zaid
Said Ahmed-Zaid

Ramadan began in North America on May 16. It is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which starts when a new crescent moon is sighted. This date was determined by the Fiqh Council of North America, a religious organization that relies on astronomical calculations instead of the traditional and often controversial eye sighting of the new moon.

In other parts of the world, such as the Gulf countries, Ramadan began on May 17, because the new moon was not spotted with the naked eye or even with telescopic aids on the evening of Tuesday, May 15.

Although Ramadan is always on the same day of the Islamic calendar, its beginning date on the Gregorian calendar varies from year to year because this latter calendar is solar-based. This means that Ramadan moves ahead in the Gregorian calendar by 10 or 11 days every year.

During this religious month, Muslims all over the world abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours in a worship known in Arabic as “siyam,” or fasting. Some Muslims also use the word “sawm” to mean fasting even though it is used to mean abstinence from speech in Verse 19:26 of the Quran. The reason for this confusion probably lies in the fact that Muslims must also refrain from vain or futile talk during this month.

During Ramadan, Muslims in the Treasure Valley will fast close to 17 hours every day. For a Muslim, a typical day in Ramadan will begin with a predawn meal called the suhoor, or suhur. This light meal is highly recommended to hydrate and nourish the body during the long summer hours. The fast is broken at dusk with the iftar, starting with a few sips of water, milk or juice and a few dates. After the sunset prayer, families sit together around the table and feast together. A short time later, Muslims flock to their neighborhood mosque, where they offer the obligatory night prayer and the optional “taraweeh” prayers, which typically last an hour or more.

During Ramadan, abstinence is not just restricted to foods and liquids. Muslims also refrain from sexual relations, smoking and offensive speech. For a whole month, Muslims train themselves to become more vigilant with their thoughts, speech and actions. By fasting and feeling hunger pains, they learn to empathize with the poor and the hungry. They commonly engage in extra charity during this month — feeding the hungry, for example. If done for the right reasons, this recalibration of the self will bring about a transformation for the better.

For me personally, Ramadan is all about the three P’s: Patience, positivity and productivity. Regarding the first aspect, Muslims train themselves in self-discipline and self-restraint. They learn to become more patient with others, especially with spouses, kids, relatives, neighbors and co-workers. As we all know, a hungry person can become very irritable, especially one who is deprived of coffee or caffeine.

Every Saturday evening during this month, the members of our congregation break their fast together at the Islamic Center of Boise. I have noticed that most of our members show a remarkable patience in public, and I have often wondered whether they are always that patient at home and around their families.

Having spent over three decades with me, my wife knows that the last two or three hours before the iftar can be the most difficult ones for a fasting person. Most evenings, she is usually in a helpful mood and will be attentive to my every need as I prepare for fast breaking. Sometimes, when she is upset with me, she can push my buttons, knowing that I cannot blow up for fear of nullifying my fast.

The second aspect of Ramadan is positivity. This aspect is reflected in several ways. For example, one must refrain from negative thinking and learn to have a more positive outlook on life. The soul exerts control over the flesh and its desires. The heart turns toward God in submission and total humility. The Prophet said that “there is no conceit in fasting.”

The third aspect of Ramadan is productivity. It is certainly true that many Muslims find a way to turn nights into days and days into nights. In many countries, work hours are shortened to allow people to get more sleep or to give them more time for shopping and preparing the evening meals.

As I am getting older, I find that I am more productive in the morning than I am in the evening. Consequently, I will schedule my mental work in the morning when I have more energy and a clearer mind. In the long evening hours, I find myself reading the Quran or listening to it. When I am not preparing an elaborate meal with my wife, I will also spend time in my garden weeding and taking care of my flowers. This outdoor therapy has helped me counteract the depressive amount of negative news in the media.

If you know a Muslim friend or neighbor, the correct etiquette is to wish them a “Ramadan mubarak,” or a blessed Ramadan. I assure you that you will make an instant friend. If you are interested, you may try to fast during a weekend to experience this unique form of worship, and we would love you to join us for fast breaking at the Islamic Center of Boise each Saturday at sunset during this month.

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.