Islam: Fasting, the Olympics and the start of Ramadan

Mosques, homes and cities light up with lanterns and lights during the nights of Ramadan. Photo in public domainSUNSET THURSDAY, JULY 19: As the sun sinks below the horizon and the crescent moon takes its place, Ramadan 2012 begins for Muslims around the world. (Confused about moon sightings? Learn more here from the website of the main North American council of Islamic scholars.)

During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, all healthy and able Muslims are required to refrain from eating and drinking during daylight hours, in the hopes that they will gain a closer relationship with Allah. By abstaining from food and drink, Muslims believe they learn submissiveness to God and can better focus on the spiritual self. (Wikipedia has details.) During this special month, Muslims also gain a better understanding of the conditions surrounding those less fortunate around the world. Charitable works skyrocket during Ramadan, and the faithful read as much of the Quran as possible.


Of every month in the calendar, Muslims hold Ramadan to be the most auspicious for the revelations of God to humankind. Specifically, Ramadan recalls the month when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Because the Quran was given to the Prophet during this month, Muslims usually spend more time with the Quran—often visiting mosques and other Muslim centers where the entire Quran will be recited aloud during the course of the month.

Read more about the significance of Ramadan in our 2012 ReadTheSpirit overview.


Consumption of sugar and pastries, such as baklava, increases dramatically during (nighttime hours of) Ramadan. Photo in public domainTradition states that God not only suggested fasting, but demanded it for those physically and mentally able. “O ye who believe!” commands the words in the Quran, “Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.” Ironically, studies show that many adherents eat up to 70 percent more than usual during Ramadan—with sugar consumption topping the charts—as a biological response to long hours without food. A fast-breaking meal known as Iftar replenishes the body’s food stores after a long day: the meal starts with dates, in the practice of Muhammad himself, followed by a feast prepared for family and friends. (Check out this site for healthy, authentic meal ideas that utilize all five food groups.) During the night, Muslim countries are alight and alive with lanterns in houses and mosques, lights in public squares and joy all around.


What if you had worked your entire life for one opportune moment—and that moment conflicted with your religious beliefs? That’s an obstacle thousands of Muslim athletes are up against this summer, as many look to their country’s Islamic scholars for guidance on fasting during the Olympic games. (The New York Times has an article.)

The United Arab Emirates’ soccer team has already been given official approval to break fast, as the Quran states that those who travel are exempt. Scholars say the problem is, once the Olympic athletes reach London, they will no longer be in transport and this rule no longer applies. Pressure is even greater for female athletes from the Arabic country of Qatar, which will be sending them to the Olympics for the first time in history. Already, it’s clear that some athletes will be approved to eat during daylight hours if they increase charity, feed poor families and fast at a later date; for others in more conservative nations, permission won’t be so easy to obtain. Still, it all comes down to a statement by one Al-Azhar scholar: “The decision is between the athlete and God in the end.”

Read more about the significance of Ramadan in our 2012 ReadTheSpirit overview.

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