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June 9, 2016

You don't have to be a Muslim to understand Ramadan

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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On June 6, Muslims around the world marked the beginning of Ramadan, a month in the Islamic lunar calendar, which "shifts" eleven days earlier each year with respect to the Gregorian solar calendar.

During Ramadan, Muslims are also eager to share their experience for spiritual growth.

During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or engaging in sexual activity from dawn to sunset. 

This year Ramadan falls during the hot month of July. Fasting is hard because of the long daylight hours, and the thirst caused by the summer heat.

To non-Muslims, fasting may seem absurd, harsh, and taxing, especially during the summer. 

But to Muslims it is an opportunity to recharge their spirit, reinforce their connection with God, and distance themselves from evil and unlawful temptations. Muslims in Ramadan are to avoid anything that is not of good nature or excessive. 

At sunset they break their fast and start a series of prayers for about an hour.  They are also encouraged to perform extra prayers in the middle of the night. Many attend these prayers at mosques. 

Before dawn, at about 4 am, they have their first meal in preparation for another day of fasting. 

While fasting is an obligation on every Muslim, certain people are exempted and include for example those who are sick, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and travelers. Children below the age of puberty are not obliged to fast but they are encouraged to do so as much as they can.

Dr. Jeffery Lang, an American Muslim professor, narrated an interesting encounter.  One of his Muslim students congratulated him on the first day of Ramadan.  A non-Muslim colleague heard the congratulation so he asked Dr. Lang about the reason.  When he heard that it was for the beginning of Ramadan, he was amazed. 

He said “the student congratulated you on having to suffer a month of hunger? I could understand him congratulating you at the end of the Ramadan when it is over, but not at the beginning!” 

This statement reflects a major difference in perspective.  To the Muslim, Ramadan is not about hunger or suffering, though it does cause both.  It is about something beyond the inconvenience of those hardships.

In order to grow in virtues, people need to experience and strive against a form of hardship or adversity in life. To be compassionate, one has to experience suffering and vow to help the victims.  To be grateful, one has to experience deprival of some basic needs for a while, to develop a real appreciation for whatever material and means he/she has gained.

Human spiritual growth in any virtue for that matter is inconceivable without experiencing some hardship and adversity. Hence, the attitude of Islam towards human suffering in general is dynamic.  It is viewed as crucial and profitable to personality growth.  And that is precisely the underlying purpose of fasting in Ramadan.

At a moment of hunger or thirst, a fasting person may encounter friends or colleagues who are eating or drinking.  He is not supposed to be offended.  On the contrary he/she should demonstrate courtesy and patience; two qualities that can be strengthened in Ramadan.

As people are more likely to get tired and hence develop bad temper while fasting, they are supposed to control their anger and mind their expressions.  That is another quality that can be emphasized in Ramadan.

Attending fully to work responsibilities and regular work hours while fasting (with no coffee, lunch or snack breaks), may cause lassitude or even fatigue.  But this is not an excuse for laziness, which is a stark contrast to the purpose of fasting.  Hence, while fasting, a Muslim should be able to develop more endurance and willpower out of this experience.

In Ramadan, much of the activities and religious rituals are performed collectively at the community level. People usually eat breakfast at sunset with friends and family members. The evening prayers attract a larger number of worshippers than usual. That should underscore the sense of brotherhood in the community.

Ramadan is also a month of sharing. Throughout the month, Muslims donate generously to various charities. But sharing does not stop at the donation level. They are also supposed to share sympathy and empathy for others.

In conclusion, a fasting Muslim needs to adorn his fast with nobility, love, appreciation, understanding and good manners.

Fasting is a definite way to help believers attain higher levels of patience, gratefulness, gentleness, generosity, courtesy, wisdom, self-determination and self-discipline.

Fasting also boosts willingness to protect the weak and advocate for justice.

That is why Muslims receive Ramadan with great anticipation and optimism.  And that is why they congratulate each other on the arrival of Ramadan by saying, “Ramadan Mubarak – Wishing you a blessed Ramadan.”

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