Ramadan: Billion Muslims tackle the most difficult fast in decades

SUNSET MONDAY, JULY 8: The month-long fast of Ramadan has not been this close to the Summer Solstice—the year’s longest daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere—since the mid 1980s. Because the Muslim calendar is based on lunar cycles, Islamic holidays and festivals keep moving nearly two weeks earlier, each year, when compared with the international calendar. This means that, in 2013, the millions of Muslims living in the Northern Hemisphere will be fasting—without a single drop of water passing their lips—during the year’s longest and hottest days.

Important note: Most major American Muslim centers are urging their communities to begin the fast at dawn on Tuesday, but the exact dates of the fasting month always vary around the world. In recent days, a report by astronomers from the United Arab Emirates (situated near Saudi Arabia) indicates that Muslims in that part of the world may start their fast one day later. The astronomers calculated that it wouldn’t be possible to sight the new month’s crescent moon on Monday night, since the moon and sun would set together on that date.

Wherever Muslims live in the Northern hemisphere, health is a huge issue this year. Muslim leaders and public-health officials in many countries are issuing safety advisories, including information for Muslims who are diabetic. A UK campaign is aimed at educating Muslims on how to maintain health throughout the month. (Get details here.) Silver Star, a charity foundation, has organized the “Staying Healthy During Ramadan” initiative, sending representatives to mosques and instructing participants on how to control blood glucose levels.

Read the Spirit publishes The Beauty of Ramadan: A Guide to the Muslim Month of Prayer and Fasting for Muslims and non-Muslims, researched and written by cross-cultural health-care expert Najah Bazzy. In her book, Bazzy includes an entire section on health advisories. Islam is a practical faith, Bazzy writes, and makes many exceptions for the safety of men and women. Although the fast of Ramadan is among the strictest in world religion, it is not forbidden for people to use their inhalers for respiratory conditions or to take insulin injections for diabetes. There are many other exceptions detailed in her book.

“Islam is very careful to encourage Muslims to be moderate in all things, to strive to find the correct balance in life,” Bazzy writes.


Given the challenges, this year, you may want to send a kind greeting for Ramadan to friends, colleagues or neighbors right now. This week, the popular Our Values series is reporting on 5 Surprising Things about Ramadan, including today’s first column about the culture of greeting Muslim neighbors during Ramadan. In the column are ideas for quickly sending your own greeting.


Ramadan involves such a vast portion of the world’s population that it affects global markets for foods related to breaking the fast each night. While Ramadan is a month-long fast, each night’s meal with family and friends is a delight—some American Muslims have compared the nights of Ramadan to a long series of Thanksgiving dinners.

Because dates are traditionally chosen as the first bites enjoyed as night falls, governments in countries with major Muslim populations try to ensure that merchants don’t gouge for dates, among other popular commodities.

In Bangladesh, the Dhaka Tribune recently reported: “Historically, it is evident that the level of consumption hikes up during the fasting month of Ramdan every year. Supply shortage, coupled with the hike in demand triggered by increased consumption, takes the price of most food products beyond affordability of lower-middle and lower income groups of people during Ramadan.” Nevertheless, the Tribune reported, sufficient food quantities seem to be available as the fasting month approaches.

Pre-Ramadan commodity reports are moving onto the front pages of newspapers across Asia and the Middle East. One report from Saudi Arabia says there may be a shortage of dates this year. A news story from Indonesia says the government is increasing imports of cattle from Australia to ensure there will be enough beef for Ramadan-night dinners. Another report from an Indonesian trade ministry claims that stocks of flour, sugar, cooking oil and eggs are at high levels in the wholesale supply chain for grocery stores. Families need not worry, the ministry reports, although the price of beef is rising.


Preparing a donation—an offering of zakat—is common in Ramadan, with a special focus on helping poor families properly observe the fasting month as well as the major festival of thanksgiving as the fasting month ends. This practice is zakat al-fitr, or giving for the breaking of the fast. This year, the Eid al-Fitr, or the Holiday of Breaking the Fast, will fall around August 7. Muslim leaders in regions around the world determine the final date for the Eid, which can vary even within a single country.

Ramadan begins with the sighting of a crescent moon and, these days, Muslim authorities commonly consulting scientists to determine the proper first day. Islamic news releases around the first day of Ramadan, now, commonly remind the world that Muslims have a centuries-old history of encouraging developments in science, math and astronomy.

In preparation for this shift to night-time festivities as each day’s fast ends, Muslim communities around the world often are strung with lanterns, glowing stars and crescent ornaments. Mosque doors will be open all night for Muslims hoping to spend extra time in prayer—and huge crowds are anticipated at many Islamic centers across the U.S. for Ramadan-night programs.

Popular Muslim centers host famous orators who are invited to recite the entire text of the Quran during Ramadan’s four weeks. (Catch live webcasting of Taraweeh prayers, check out a Hadith of the Day or look up nationwide prayer times at IslamiCity.) Muslims believe that the rewards for prayer, zakat and a devoted fast are multiplied during this, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

In her book, Najah Bazzy quotes an English translation of the Prophet Muhammad’s own sermon about Ramadan, which says in part: “O People! The month of God (Ramadan) has approached you with His mercy and blessings. This is the month that is the best of all months in the estimation of God. Its days are the best among the days; its nights are the best among the nights. Its hours are the best among the hours.

Once Ramadan has begun, Muslims eat their first pre-fast meal before sunrise, known as suhoor. (As the Muslim community is so culturally diverse, there is no typical suhoor food.) From sunrise to sunset, Muslims abstain from food, liquids, smoking and sexual intimacy. The fast also is supposed to include the elimination of evil intentions and deeds. Bazzy writes that Muslims are challenged to avoid all forms of ill will: “A person must not gossip, lie, covet or steal.” She adds: “The mindset or mental preparation for the fast is as important as the fast itself.”


At sunset each night, Muslim families halt their activities for the joyous iftar, or fast-breaking evening meal. As Muhammad broke his Ramadan fast with three dates, most Muslims continue his practice. Prayer follows, and then the expansive iftar meal is served. In the Middle East, several beverages, salads, appetizers, entrees and desserts make up a well-planned iftar. Entrees are usually traditional, ranging from lamb with wheat berries to roasted chicken with chickpea stuffing.

Care to taste what many Muslim families will enjoy at iftar? Feed the Spirit columnist Bobbie Lewis is beginning a two-part column on favorite Ramadan recipes from an Afghani-American family. Her first column includes a recipe for a wonderfully spicy-and-savory vegetarian stuffed flat bread.

Enjoy a good movie after dinner? Film critic Ed McNulty serves up A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Best Films on Food and Faith, which includes Hollywood favorites as well as one feature film about fasting in Ramadan.

During the last 10 days of Ramadan, the Prophet became especially rigorous in his nightly prayer and daytime worship, even taking up temporary social isolation. Most Muslims consider the last one-third of Ramadan to be an even stricter period, and Laylat al-Qadr, the “night of power,” falls during this time. Adherents believe that the first revelation of the Quran was sent to Muhammad on this night, and thus worship is considered “better than one thousand months.”


In Egypt, a male-only soap opera is creating buzz as it debuts during Ramadan, the country’s busiest and most lucrative television season. Creators of the show, called Coffee Shop, say that they wanted to create an alternative to the sexualized content of most TV series. (The Guardian covered the story.) Catering to a conservative Egyptian population won’t be difficult, creators say, since coffee shops are typically male environments on the streets of Egypt anyway.

After seven months of construction in Saudi Arabia on the Grand Mosque’s Mataf, the vast area where pilgrims move around the sacred Kabaa, workers will halt for the entirety of Ramadan. With massive crowds expected during the month, the Grand Mosque will be in full use, even if crowded, a problem that will be solved once the expansion project is complete in 2015. (Read the story in the Saudi Gazette.) At project end, the Mataf will double its current capacity.

In Canada, Muslim taxi drivers will be accommodated for Ramadan despite the surge of tourists expected for the Calgary Stampede. (The CPC reports.) At the city’s busiest time of year, Calgary’s taxi drivers—an estimated 40 percent of whom are Muslim—will be provided a centrally located area to pray, so that they can minimize their time off-duty while still adhering to the obligations of Ramadan.

Care to read more about America’s growing religious diversity? Check out this series of columns by Michigan State University’s journalism professor Joe Grimm.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

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