I fasted for the first time in July 1956 when I was 11 years old. A year according to the Islamic calendar, which is lunar, is 12 days shorter than a Gregorian calendar year. Hence, the month of Ramadan rotates around the solar year. Since 1956, this is the third time that we are witnessing Ramadan in peak summer. I have had the privilege of observing Ramadan in Pakistan in my youth, then for 25 years in the Middle East and for the last 15 years in United States. My memories of Ramadan therefore bear a great deal of variety and diversity.
Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. They start the fast with an early pre-dawn breakfast, abstain from eating and drinking throughout the day and eventually break their fast immediately after sunset. Beside the change in season, the working condition of the fasting person determines how tough the fasting process may be. At the peak of summers, I have seen farmers in Pakistan fasting while working on their fields, harvesting their crops and feeding their cattle. That, indeed, takes some courage, some strength of faith. Consider the fasting of construction workers in the Middle East with temperatures ranging from 110 to 120 F. These workers live in tents with no air-conditioning and survive on basic minimum food. Similarly, in developing countries like Pakistan, power shortages and power outages mean poor people living without electricity for 12 – 18 hours every day. Fasting under these conditions is indeed the real test of faith.
A beautiful tradition of old days that may still be seen in the villages of Pakistan, is the drummers going around the streets at night awakening the people to prepare their ‘Sehri’ (early breakfast). In the cities, sirens go off and Moazzins make announcements in the mosques indicating time remaining for starting the fast.
In most Muslim countries, mass arrangements are made for Iftar (fast breaking) in mosques and other feeding centers where tens of thousands come to enjoy their free dinner. This is a huge opportunity for the rich and the privileged to seek the pleasure of Allah and for the poor and the needy to get food. Here in the US too, mosques are packed at Iftar time where families take turns to host the dinners. This is also a perfect time for Muslims to socialize and connect with one another in their otherwise busy life.
Another beautiful tradition is holding a private ceremony to celebrate a young child’s starting to fast for the first time. Children as young as 7 to 9 years, enthusiastically opt to fast, which is a matter of pride and joy for the whole family.
There is a beautiful and eternal connection between the Quran and Ramadan. The Quran was revealed during the month of Ramadan and hence, the Quran is the focus in this month. Muslims recite the Quran abundantly at home and Quranic recitation by Huffaz (those who have memorized the Quran), especially in the late night prayers – Taraweeh – that often continue till midnight or later. Young Huffaz take turns to lead the prayers to practice the Quran they have committed to memory. The tradition is to complete the Quran in the Taraweeh at the mosque by the 27th night of Ramadan that is considered by most scholars as Layla tul Qadr (The Night of Power).
The Quran was revealed on this very special night. God in His infinite Mercy has not specified the actual night and hence the faithful are advised to seek the night from among the last ten nights to earn great rewards. A Quranic chapter entitled ‘Layla tul Qadr’, states that this night is better than 1000 months and that the angels descend on the earth throughout the night till dawn showering God’s blessings and bounties on the believers. Out of the last ten nights, the odd nights have more probability and, as said earlier, most scholars agree on 27th being the special night.
Muslims abstain from food and drink so they can feel for themselves the plight of the poor and the unprivileged that do not have enough food and water. The practice of fasting helps us develop a sense of empathy and sympathy and thereby cultivates in us a sense of sacrifice and giving. This is why most Muslim charity organizations hold fundraising campaigns in Ramadan to help the needy across the world.
PICNA too has been organizing programs to feed the homeless where Muslim families cook food and serve the homeless at the premises of participating organizations. Recently, we organized an event to feed the Muslim inmates at a local detention center that proved to be a great experience.
Ramadan is a month of caring and sharing, sacrifice and giving. This holy month helps us to connect with our Creator and thus bring ourselves closer to Him. Ramadan teaches us self discipline and patience, restraint and tolerance and, therefore, strengthens our character and faith. This blessed month provides us a refresher course that we can put into practice year round and thus achieve excellence of character.