October 24, 2021

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Here’s What You Should Know About Ramadan and How it is Celebrated

Photo credit: Muslim Girl - Getty Images
Photo credit: Muslim Girl – Getty Images

From Woman’s Day

Each year, Muslims around the world celebrate the holy month of Ramadan. Many people know that fasting is a common practice during Ramadan, but there are a number of other traditions associated with the holiday that are less well known.

Hina Khan-Mukhtar, a teacher and writer who is on the Board of Directors for the Muslim Community Center East Bay in northern California, says that Ramadan is a joyous time.

“The Islamic centers and mosques are very full of life and full of light during that time,” Khan-Mukhtar tells Woman’s Day. “It’s as if you can imagine Christmas being celebrated every night for a month. The community comes together, people bring food to share, even children love going to the mosque at night. It’s a time of community and gathering.”

Here’s what you should know about Ramadan, from its history to how it’s celebrated today.

What does Ramadan celebrate?

Ramadan is a holy month of fasting, worship, and prayer. It celebrates the creation of the Quran, which is the holy book for people who practice the Islamic faith. Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad received revelations directly from God, which were documented and collected in what eventually became the holy book. A passage in the Quran explains, “The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Quran was revealed as guidance for mankind, and as clear signs that show the right way and distinguish between right and wrong.”

Khan-Mukhtar says that Ramadan is also celebrated as a time for a clean start.

“What I would love for people to know is that Ramadan is a time of hope and renewal and trying to have a fresh start,” she explains. “It’s really a time of rejuvenation, where it’s like ‘I’m going to go through this month and I’m really going to turn to God, and ask for forgiveness and ask for blessings,’ and then you come out of it with a lot of hope for starting all over again on a good foot.”

When is Ramadan celebrated?

The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which means that the beginning of each new month starts on the new moon. Ramadan takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, but because of the lunar cycle, the specific dates for Ramadan vary year to year.

This year, Ramadan is expected to begin on Monday, April 12th, 2021 and conclude on Tuesday, May 11th.

Photo credit: Emma Hancox / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Emma Hancox / EyeEm – Getty Images

Why do people fast during Ramadan?

During Ramadan, healthy adult Muslims fast during daylight hours. As part of the fast, they abstain from all food and drink, as well as sexual activity. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are the core beliefs and practices that define the religion.

In an piece about Ramadan written for Vox, Muslim writer Jennifer Williams explained, “The practice of fasting serves several spiritual and social purposes: to remind you of your human frailty and your dependence on God for sustenance, to show you what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty so you feel compassion for (and a duty to help) the poor and needy, and to reduce the distractions in life so you can more clearly focus on your relationship with God.”

Khan-Mukhtar also explained that while there are lots of reasons for Muslims to abstain from food and drink during Ramadan, ultimately the main reason to fast is because they are commanded to do so in the Quran.

Do all Muslims during Ramadan?

According to an article written by community health sciences educator Sara Elnakib for Eat Right, certain groups are exempt from fasting during Ramadan. These groups include children who have not reached puberty, the elderly, those who are physically or mentally incapable of fasting, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and people who are traveling.

Besides fasting, what are some of the other ways people celebrate Ramadan?

Khan-Mukhtar says that in addition to fasting, Ramadan is also a time for reflection. “It’s a time for being really mindful about how we talk to people, what kind of language we use, what we’re absorbing, even with our eyes — like what kinds of things we’re looking at or watching. We’re seeing how it affects our heart.”

Photo credit: Jasmin Merdan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jasmin Merdan – Getty Images

Besides fasting and being mindful, there are some other special Ramadan traditions.

Kahn-Mukhtar explained that one special tradition is “moonsighting.” Since the timing of Ramadan is determined by when the new moon appears in the ninth lunar month, the spotting of that new moon is significant. “It’s often a tradition that people go out to scenic vista points to try and look for the moon, and then when the new moon is sighted, it’s super exciting,” Kahn-Mukhtar says. “When it’s sighted, then you know that it is Ramadan and we get to start fasting tomorrow. It’s a good way to connect with the heavens and with nature, it’s a good way to get outside.”

In the evening, Muslims will break their fast with a date (the fruit) and water. Traditionally, people also gather at mosques and Islamic centers in the evenings for prayer and worship, though things are understandably different during the pandemic.

What should I do to be respectful of my Muslim friends and coworkers during Ramadan?

“A good way to support is just having a very positive mindset about Ramadan, being excited for people, and saying things like, ‘How is your Ramadan going?’” Kahn-Mukhtar explains.

Keeping a positive mindset can also mean questioning your own assumptions. She says that as a parent, a misunderstanding she encounters often is that people assume the children must dislike fasting — which she says isn’t really the case. “That idea is actually completely the opposite of the truth. Fasting is seen as a right of passage. A lot of kids are very, very eager to start fasting.”

Although it’s not expected that non-Muslims fast during Ramadan, Kahn-Mukhtar also says that she’s had experiences where someone decided to fast with her in solidarity. “It’s really heartwarming to see someone is wanting to experience what you’re experiencing.”

Lastly, if you’re at an event like a work party and you know you have Muslim coworkers who are fasting, it would be a thoughtful gesture to prepare a plate for them and cover it so that they can take it home and eat it when they break their fast that evening.

Has COVID-19 changed anything about how people are celebrating Ramadan?

Photo credit: Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir – Getty Images

Last year’s Ramadan took place from April to May 2020, during the early months of the pandemic. “This last Ramadan was very disorienting for a lot of us,” Kahn-Mukhtar says. “It is a very communal thing, to share food with the poor, to share food with our neighbors, to share food with our loved ones, relatives, friends, community members. That’s a big part of Ramadan.”

She explained that like with many things during the pandemic, Ramadan worship was done via Zoom. Many mosques would open for the imam (worship leader), and that person would go in and pray by himself out loud, and it was live-streamed so people could watch and participate via Zoom.

“I know many who said it’s actually kind of a beautiful experience, because Ramadan in the evenings used to be pretty hectic,” Khan-Mukhtar notes. “Usually, we would break our fast together at home and then eat dinner and then quickly rush to go to the local mosque or Islamic center to join the rest of the community. So there were a lot of moving parts, but now, it was all at home so it was a slower pace. Some of us actually enjoyed it in that it gave us time to slow down. We were able to focus on our prayers and our worship at home.”

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