Ramadan returns with a tradition of fasting, charity and prayer for Muslims

This year, according to astronomical calculations, the month of Ramadan likely will begin on Monday, May 6, and end on Monday, June 3. It is expected that this month will last 29 days, according to the lunar calendar used by Muslims.

Muslims all over the Treasure Valley are waiting in anticipation for the return of the tradition of Ramadan. It is a month of fasting from food and drink during daylight hours, and it is observed by Muslims worldwide. The fasting of the month of Ramadan was ordained as one of the five pillars of Islam during the second year after the Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina.

Islam, as a religion, emphasizes orthopraxy over orthodoxy. As such, Muslims focus more on the correct practice of the five pillars of Islam rather than obsessing about the correct dogmas in their religion. To recall, the five tenets of Islam are the verbal declaration of faith, praying five times daily, fasting the month of Ramadan, giving the mandatory alms-giving, and accomplishing a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. These five pillars, as they are called, define a practicing Muslim.

Based on my experience, I can say with certainty that more Muslims fast the whole month of Ramadan than assiduously offer the five daily prayers. Fasting is a spiritual experience, which is best experienced as a community. It is a time when the faithful congregate at night to perform the extra Taraweeh prayers at mosques. Some places of worship also serve meals at night for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Here in Boise, our congregation performs the Taraweeh prayers every night. We are fortunate to have several Quran reciters who have memorized the whole Quran. During the prayers, portions of the Quran are recited every night during the month of Ramadan, until the recitation of the whole book is completed on the evening of the last day of this blessed month. This tradition commemorates how the first verses of the Quran, the holy scripture of Muslims, were revealed to the Prophet during the month of Ramadan.

As a fundamental pillar of Islam, this particular tenet teaches empathy skills toward the poor, the hungry and the indigent. When we fast and experience hunger pains, we discover what the poor and hungry experience throughout the year. The poor and the homeless become visible to our eyes, and we realize that we must make an effort to alleviate their hunger and help them with the basic necessities of life. There are also the elderly, the sick, the widows, the orphans and the stranded travelers. Keeping them in mind softens our hearts and guides us to relieve their hardships with acts of kindness.

The month of Ramadan is essentially a period of training the spirit to have dominance over the body and its primal desires and instincts. A month of fasting may seem like a long period for the uninitiated. To be meaningful, however, a training period must be sufficiently long and adequate in order to recalibrate one’s biological, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions.

During the 29 days, the will and spirit are galvanized in a union where they reinforce each other. The spirit takes over the reins of a person’s life and obliges the body to submit to a new lifestyle of sacrifice and reward.

A person becomes better able to control one’s emotions and to confine them to their proper role. The body learns that one’s desires no longer direct one’s life and personality. In this state of fasting, we are not suppressing our emotions. We are merely readjusting the role of each part of our self. An imperfect fast, on the other hand, only brings hunger, starvation and disappointment.

Fasting is a communal event. A fasting person realizes that he or she is part of a bigger community that rises or falls together. During this month, relatives and friends visit each other and exchange food. Some days, you get to be the host. On other days, you are the guest in someone’s home. In Islamic tradition, Ramadan is then a time of reflection when Muslims participate in charity, fasting and prayer as a community. It is a tradition that strengthens the ties of kinship and brotherhood.

The end of Ramadan is celebrated in a festival called the Eid ul Fitr, or the festival of fast breaking. This celebration starts on the first day of the month following Ramadan. Muslims dress in their best clothes and offer the Eid prayer that morning. Children usually receive modest gifts of toys and candy. The polite greeting on this day is to say Eid Mubarak, which means have a blessed Eid.

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.