Ramadan is here!
Ramadan Mubarak wa Kareem! Blessed & Happy Ramadan!
May the month bring you spiritual renewal, growth, and peace.
On this, the first day of Ramadan (it starts tonight), I find myself thinking—quite naturally, I think—about food and hunger.
Non-Muslims who know about Ramadan, one of the “five pillars” of Islam (the “five pillars” are, I should note, a Sunni way of considering things), may rightly assume hunger and thirst accompany it. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from shortly before sunrise throughout the day until sunset. At sunset, Muslims eat an iftar, a break-fast, and fast this way every day from sunrise to sunset, for an entire month.
The precise duration of the fast varies, depending on the period of year Ramadan falls and where you live. Ramadan is the 9th month of the Muslim lunar calendar, the Hijri Calendar, as it is called. The Hijri Calendar does not intercalate with the Western/Gregorian solar one, it does not adjust to match the seasons and the months, so the Muslim calendar moves up by about 11 days each year, relative to the Western (solar) calendar in which the seasons remain fixed, pretty much, to the same months.
I first fasted for Ramadan as a young teenager in Morocco (tradition there said you started fasting when you reached puberty, kind of like a ritual-free bar mitzvah, also without the presents). It was Summer. Imagine not being able to drink on long, hot Summer days. Yet years later, in college at Princeton, I got to enjoy Ramadan in Winter, with shorter days, much colder too. Where you are on the globe affects how long the days are. Though of course, everyone fasts from “sunrise to sunset.”
Of course, Ramadan means much more than simply not eating from sunrise to sunset.
During Ramadan Muslims refrain also from gossip and malicious speech (an especial effort is made during Ramadan, though these are to be avoided all the time), anger or greedy thoughts, day or night. Another sunrise-to-sunset abstinence involves sex, including masturbation, and also smoking cigarettes (just imagine the challenge nicotine-jonesing Muslim smokers face, fasting for Ramadan, striving to maintain a gentle countenance and not give in to anger.)
In addition to avoiding certain habits and behaviors, Ramadan is a time to add things or increase the presence in our lives of things we want, especially of non-material things. It is a time of increased prayer and scriptural study, of meditation and reflection.
Many Muslims read the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, or scripture, in stages, with a goal of completing the entire book by the end of the month. Many also listen to Quranic recitation, the expert singing declamation of the sacred verses. And during Ramadan, it’s recommended to add additional prayers, the tarawih prayers, to the regular daily prayers Muslims spend focused in worship.
Another non-material thing that gets added into people’s lives is community and family time. It is very common to go visit relatives or neighbors to break-fast together. This is especially so as it is highly recommended that Muslims invite and host others to break-fast (iftar). Adding to the community spirit is the intimate unity that is forged when, across Muslim communities, each in their own geographic locality, everyone break their fasts at the same time. Of course, as Muslims are everywhere around the globe and represented in every ethnicity, what those iftars looks like can vary greatly. There is a dizzying diversity of Muslims, who number near 1.6 billion people! But that is no challenge; unity does not require uniformity.
Yet another essential element of Ramadan is giving zakat al-fitr (break-fast charity: Muslims who have food in excess of their needs must pay, kind of a redistributive scheme or “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs”, if I may be so flip) which must be paid before the Eid prayer (Break-Fast Holiday Feast) at the close of Ramadan. Zakah (compulsory charity based on one’s wealth) is an obligation on all Muslims at all times; it is another one of the 5 pillars of Islam. But there is a special requirement to give this special zakah during Ramadan. Doing or supporting charitable work in other ways is also a tradition during Ramadan, even more so than generally though charity is central to the Islamic faith.
As you can see, Ramadan is about a lot more than not eating, even not eating in order to feel solidarity and compassion for the poor and the hungry, or not eating as a way to improve the soul by lessening the grip of material things like food.
And for each individual Muslim, Ramadan has personal meaning. You can get a sampling of the diversity by reading last year’s Ramadan Reflections by Imam Khalid Latif, the NYU & NYPD Muslim Chaplain (maybe he’ll write them again this year), or Ro Waseem’s quranalyzit blog, or, for an interfaith dimension, perhaps Sarita Agerman’s musings might do you. There are many others, from Omid Safi’s committed perspectives, to Hind Makki‘s activist and Islamic ethicist.
For me, Ramadan for me brought a dawning awareness of what it meant to go hungry, what it meant to be poor, which for a privileged youth, was a significant discovery. While some friends might stay up all night eating or wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to eat some more, I limited myself to the traditional break-fast at sunset, followed a few hours later by “dinner,” and then a snack a few hours after that before heading to bed. Hunger followed. And Hunger was itself followed by difficulty concentrating in class and on my work, fatigue, irritability, and a sense of always being cold (even in the Summer). However, as we should refrain from complaints during Ramadan, I did not admit it then.
Whatever the challenge, Ramadan gave me gifts, one of them being the knowledge that I could exert my will and rein in my hunger, that my appetite need not rule me. It gave me a sense of accomplishment to successfully complete an entire month of fasting. I gained a sense of camaraderie, sharing in a precise cultural moment with neighbors and strangers, a sense of affinity and affiliation which was precious to my teenage self. And most of all, Ramadan gave me hunger and awareness, a confirmation of my shared humanity with poor Muslims (well, the poor in general). Through a month’s lived experience of what it might be like to be poor and hungry, I gained a sense of perspective on my own privilege and compassion for others without it.
Ramadan, much like the rest of Islam as I was taught it, helped experience helped shape my moral and political values—community, a sense of responsibility to each other siblings in the human family, compassion, identification with the less fortunate, the requirement of giving charity—charity calculated on what assets one has after one has taken care of oneself and one’s obligations.
So, as I sat contemplating another Ramadan, I was remembering my first fast, and that hunger. The lessons from that experience, from Islamic ethics and other philosophies, teach me it is not enough to simply think about the Muslim hungry and poor during this holy month. Hunger and poverty are universal. Hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, yet while 1 billion people in the world experience hunger, we here in the USA throw away 1/3 of our food production as waste.
With that knowledge, I close you with a plea to you—whether you are Muslim or not, gearing up for a month of fasting after tonight or not—check out the links and give something. Here are some suggestions for something you can donate (if you are able, give something in each of the categories; generosity is the spirit of Ramadan):
- Money: make a donation to one of the groups listed below or to another anti-hunger group you know and respect—it doesn’t matter how small the gift is, every gift helps them work to fulfill their mission;
- Time: Call and write your Senators and Congress Members using this simple summary of the issues and the policy responses needed to address them, courtesy of Bread for the World, one of the groups listed below;
- Education: Take a little bit of time and poke around the websites of those groups below and learn a little more about hunger, climate change, and what we might be able to about it; and
- Social Media Real Estate: Donate one of your Facebook posts or Twitter tweets or other social media publications to the theme and topic of hunger, including some action steps people can take to address the problem
City Harvest (feeding NYC’s hungry)Feeding America (working across the USA)Bread for the World (working in the USA & globally)