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6 Things Non Muslims May Not Know About Ramadan

Dear non-Muslim family members, coworkers, and classmates,

The month of fasting for Muslims known as Ramadan is coming soon. And while your Muslim acquaintances are limbering up for the fast, you may be having a hard time wrapping your mind around what Ramadan is even about.

But it’s not as complicated as it may seem at first glance. Here is a breakdown of what is up with the month of fasting for those who may be curious or down right confused.

Muslims can Eat, Just Not When the Sun is up

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast from the time before the sun peeks over the horizon to the time the sun dips below the horizon. It’s not a complete fast all day and night for 30 entire days.

Food and drink is consumed during the hours when the sun is not up. And most Muslims celebrate the breaking of the fast each day with loved ones in a meal called iftar.

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Fasting for 30 day! No one can survive that!’ Was my first reaction when I found out David was going to start fasting last Ramadan. I was kinda worried. But then I learned a bit more about the month of Ramadan (thank you, Google) and saw how well David handled his classwork and fasting. He even aced one tough exam that I didn’t do so well on. When all was said and done, I was embarrassed by my [initial] reaction.” –Sammy Gaillard

No, Not Even Water

But when the sun is up, Muslims can’t have anything to eat or drink, not even water. Some non-Muslims have the idea that fasting for Ramadan is like the fast before a medical procedure- only a few hours and you can drink water. But fasting in Islam entails abstaining from ingesting anything.

And it’s not just food and water Muslims must refrain from. Fasting is all about training yourself to be more disciplined. To that end, Muslims must also avoid cursing, gossiping, smoking, fighting, arguing or even just acting cranky.

The idea is that if you can control yourself when you haven’t had food or drink, then you know you are pretty strong and can make it the rest of the year without indulging in these negative activities.

During my sister’s first Ramadan, I was scared to be around her during the day. I thought she would end up pitching a fit after a long day without food or water. But I was so shocked at how patient she was. She was actually nicer! I was super impressed with her and her new faith. And now I look forward to Ramadan with her especially because she makes amazing meals every evening.” -Shannon Murphy

Ramadan is Not about being Hungry/Thirsty/Tired

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time to examine who they are on a base level and improve themselves.

Spiritual growth is the main idea for the month of fasting. It’s a time to build character, spirituality, and discipline. It’s cleansing for both the body and the soul.

If a Muslim is just going hungry or thirsty or tired and does not include introspection and spiritual growth as a part of the month, their fast is a waste of time.

Ramadan is like a yearly overhaul or spring-cleaning for the body and the soul (even though it doesn’t always happen in Spring). Muslims must get rid of their bad habits, reorganize, and start fresh with a clean slate.

Fasting is Not Detrimental to Your Health

Many non-Muslims who are confronted with the thought of a 30 day fast come to the conclusion that it must be unhealthy. This is no surprise in a society that has a very close relationship with food.

We in the West have convinced ourselves that we need so much more food that our bodies actually require. The fact of this is evidenced by the obesity epidemic. And scientists agree that fasting is not only not detrimental to the health of a healthy adult, but it is actually beneficial.

According to Live Science, “The most common eating pattern in modern societies of three meals daily, plus snacks, is abnormal from the perspective of human evolution.”

And scientists have found that “intermittent fasting helps the body to rejuvenate and repair, thereby promoting overall health.” (Source)

Not Everyone can Fast

This is a big question on many non-Muslims minds: do sick people or even children have to fast?

The answer is no.

Only adult Muslims of good health may fast. Children and elderly people are not required to fast since it may be detrimental to their growth or health, respectively.

Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers have the option not to fast since their bodies are already being taxed.

Women who are menstruating do not fast since, again, they are already dealing with demands on their bodies.

People who have chronic health problems that fasting would exacerbate are not allowed to fast.

People who come down with a serious, acute illness during the month are not allowed to fast.

And people who are travelling have the option to fast or not to fast.

The purpose of fasting should not be to harm oneself. And if there is a likelihood that fasting will do serious harm, that Muslim is exempt from it. But don’t congratulate Muslims who cannot fast because many feel intense grief over not being able to participate in the fast of Ramadan. Read more about people who cannot fast here.

“I felt immense relief when I first read about the fasting of Ramadan and found out that my husband didn’t have to fast because of his health. That was until I realized that my husband felt left out. He even mourned the Ramadan experience. I decided to help him by encouraging him to give up other things that he could safely abstain from. This abstinence really helped him feel more connected to his new community and to the holy month.”- Jenny Ramirez

Ramadan Moves Year to Year

Julie McGovern, who knew a Muslim coworker who was fasting in 2002 asked, “Isn’t Ramadan in the fall?” when she found out that Ramadan in 2016 will be in June. Julie didn’t know that Ramadan moves approximately 10 days every year.

This movement of the month is because every year Ramadan starts when the new moon is sighted for the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Each month is 29-30 days long depending on the lunar cycle. This means that each year the month of Ramadan moves up 10 days in relation to the Gregorian calendar. This also means the Ramadan in 2002 was in November and now in 2016 it is in June.

And because of the moving month, everyone gets to experience Ramadan in different seasons of the year. There is a kind of equality that a moving month affords because no one part of the world has to always fast in the long, hot days of summer months while another gets to fast in the shorter and cooler days of the fall and winter months.

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time to reconnect with faith and community. It is a time to improve oneself. It is a time of significant growth.

Ramadan can make one more grateful, charitable, patient, and disciplined. Fasting is hard but nothing worth doing is ever easy.

If you wish to support your coworker, classmate, friend or family member during the month of Ramadan, congratulate them on the month.

For those who are more adventurous, ask if you can fast alongside them to see what it is like.

You never know, you might get something out of it.

(From Discovering Islam’s archive)

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.