What Ramadan really means to me — and nearly 2 billion Muslims

For many, Islam’s holy month involves much more than fasting prayer; it’s a “physical and spiritual cleanse” as well.

Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah lights up in the middle of its iconic archipelago. London’s Piccadilly Circus dons crescent-and-star ornaments. Countries with Muslim populations around the world shimmer with lights adorning nearly every avenue. Thousands of miles apart, the lights and displays spell out the same words: “Ramadan Mubarak” — or “Happy Ramadan.”

The holy month has begun, the time when nearly a quarter of the world’s population — some 1.8 billion Muslims — will celebrate Ramadan. It falls during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar year; for Muslims, it is a time to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam, taking part in a blessed and holy time meant for spiritual purification. For thirty days, from sunrise to sunset, believers will fast from food, water and indulgent pleasures. Days and nights are spent in prayer, reflection and charity, as advised in the Quran. Come sunset, people break their fasts in a feast known as the “iftar” before spending part of the night in prayer and worship. The month’s end is marked by Eid-al-Fitr, a holiday whose arrival depends on the sighting of the new moon; this year, it is expected to come on April 22. And when it does, feast and celebration are in order.

It may be that each of those 1.8 billion people carries a unique feeling about Ramadan. Some of my fondest memories are from years spent in Boston when my three daughters were little. We had arrived in the U.S. from Pakistan in January 2001, a few months before the tragedy of 9/11. My wife wanted to make sure our children knew who we were and what we believed and to convey to others the peaceful values of Islam. So each year, when the Eid-al-Fitr celebrations arrived, my wife would send our daughters to school dressed in their native clothes and well-prepared to share their own knowledge of the holy month and the Eid festivities. They even brought food and goodies for their classmates. It was a wholesome, heartwarming experience that allowed us to share our background and beliefs with others and in the process, strengthen community.

The meaning and the history

It is regularly referred to as “God’s favorite month,” the most blessed and holy time of the year for Muslims. Ramadan dates to the earliest days of the faith; indeed, the Quran itself was revealed during Ramadan. The divine injunctions for fasting came 10 years after the Prophet Muhammad publicly presented the message of Islam in Mecca. Histories have put the date at A.D. 624.

In the words of the Prophet: “There has come to you Ramadan, a blessed month, in which Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, has enjoined you to fast. In it, the gates of heavens are opened, and the gates of Hell are closed.”

There is much more to the “blessed month” than prayer and fasting. Ramadan is meant to be a time of increased almsgiving and service to others — a time for forgiveness, repentance and a recentering of oneself. The central theme involves abandoning one’s desires, ego and worldly indulgences to better reflect with gratitude upon God. Above all, Ramadan is meant to be a time of joy, unity and peace — an opportunity for spiritual betterment that brings a person closer to the divine.

It is, you might think, a lot to ask or expect of the believer in a single month.

The power of community

Beyond the meaning for individual Muslims, the “blessed month” is meant to be a time for strengthening community.

As Muslim communities have grown in the West, so too has the acknowledgment of Ramadan and the culture of iftar gatherings, including those hosting non-Muslim friends. Notably, the White House has hosted an iftar dinner almost every year since 1996.

Throughout Ramadan, we are called as individuals and communities to reflect on the choices we make and the impact those choices have — and what we can do to improve both. Whether it’s feeding the hungry, organizing blood drives, donating to local shelters or being of service to different organizations, during Ramadan, Muslims give back through a variety of means. And in our increasingly social justice-conscious era, many Muslims, especially the young and educated, now harness this energy to push for racial equality and caring for the environment.

When “fasting” means more than no food and water

Since the earliest commemorations of Ramadan, the idea behind fasting has been to promote piety and self-evaluation.

From the Quran 2:183: “Oh, you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may learn piety and righteousness.”

Fasting is known to improve our sense of willpower, generosity and faith overall. In the teachings of Islam, its meaning reaches well beyond food and water. “Fasting” during Ramadan means abstaining from all sorts of pleasures — no sex during the daytime hours, for example — and harmful behaviors, including speaking profanely or acting on a bad habit or impulse. The goal is to improve not only your relationship with God but also your relationship with yourself.

Beyond whatever spiritual advancement is gained, fasting is also a healthy thing to do — contrary to what some may believe. There are proven medical benefits to the practice, such as regulating blood sugar, fighting inflammation, enhancing cardiovascular health and lowering cholesterol, among others. There is a reason why the practice of “intermittent fasting” has caught on in the U.S. and elsewhere.

That said, many Muslims are exempt: those suffering from illness, the elderly, children, pregnant people or others for whom fasting would be difficult or risky. Those who happen to be traveling during the month are excused as well. (On a lighter note, I know people who make special plans to travel during Ramadan to benefit from the exemption; that, according to theologians, is against the spirit of Ramadan.) As far as getting work done while hungry and thirsty, many Muslim countries adjust work hours to Ramadan’s schedule. But it is impermissible to stop working because of the fast; the point is to keep to one’s everyday life.

Most importantly, fasting allows us to better understand the reality of the less fortunate: those who regularly spend their days hungry. In turn, this heightens our sense of compassion, empathy and generosity.

Essentially, the month acts as both a physical and spiritual cleanse meant to remove the toxins from our body and soul. The Prophet Muhammad emphasized that the hunger experienced during fasting is of no reward unless there is genuine spiritual devotion and betterment.

Ramadan — and other faiths

Muslims are, of course, not the only ones who fast for spiritual reasons. Their Abrahamic brothers and sisters in Christianity and Judaism also have a history and tradition of fasting for similar reasons. In fact, Ramadan is often compared to Lent, a holy time for Christians that marks the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. For members of the Jewish faith, depending on their practice, fasting can take place a number of times throughout the year, most notably during Yom Kippur, a holiday centered on repentance and atonement. This shared history means that Ramadan also affords an opportunity for interfaith discussion and the building of harmony.

As the month begins, it also brings me hope that perhaps we can all learn a little something from this time. In my experience, the centuries-old practice of physical struggle for the betterment of the spiritual is incredibly liberating — man mastering his desire instead of the other way around. And beyond the holy month itself, Ramadan offers the chance to commit to the changes you wish to make in your life and set a standard of discipline and devotion for self-improvement during the rest of the year.

Lastly, Ramadan as a concept offers all a reminder that each day presents a new opportunity to improve ourselves and that gratitude and giving can help us all move forward individually and collectively. Whether you are Muslim or not, the idea of spending time with others and working to be the best version of yourself is a sweet and timeless notion. After all, isn’t that all we can do at the end of the day? Try to live our days in peace and joy and gratitude, with the knowledge that the sun will rise again.

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