By Imam Qari Asim, MBE
Chair of Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board / Senior Editor, Imams Online
This week marks the beginning of Ramadan. Each year, Ramadan is celebrated with much fervour and enthusiasm but what exactly do Muslims do in this month?
During the month of Ramadan Muslims will fast during the day for a month. Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations from dawn to sunset. Certain groups are exempt, including children, the elderly, the sick, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people who are travelling. As the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan (9th month of the Islamic calendar) falls at different times of the year. The hours of fasting are incredibly long during the summer. This year British Muslims will have their breakfast at around 2am and then go without food and drink until around 9.00pm.
From the outside looking in, Ramadan can seem very oppressive, or even a danger to health. However, millions of Muslims across the globe have been fasting for centuries, without suffering any fasting-specific illnesses or diseases. A number of scientific studies have actually demonstrated the health benefits of intermittent or short periods of fasting when diet is properly controlled.
There is no denying that Muslims will feel tired and weaker than usual due to the long hours of fasting but they will still carry on with their daily lives: going to school, taking exams, working, playing, cooking. Indeed, some of the world’s leading athletes and sports stars have managed to fast while performing at the highest levels.
It might come as a surprise, but in actual fact the four weeks of self-restraint is actually something that Muslims look forward to. The first few days can be testing both physically and spiritually, but people adjust to the new routine very quickly. Fasting is like a secret pact between each individual and their Lord; no other person knows whether someone has had a sneaky drink or a bit of food when alone, it is only God who knows.
As in other religions, fasting is prescribed not just for its physical benefits, but also for its positive mental and spiritual development. Ramadan is designed to allow Muslims to rediscover and re-direct themselves and learn self-discipline. The physical fast is a symbol and outward expression of the real inner fast. The Prophet Muhammad says: ”Whoever does not give up foul language and evil actions, God is not in need of his leaving food and drink.” Many thoroughly transform their attitude, behaviour and lifestyle and hope that these ethical practices will remain with them for the rest of the year.
Ramadan stimulates the ethos of sharing and caring, extra generosity, respect and giving preference to fellow human beings. We remember those less fortunate than ourselves – whether they are the homeless and refugees in our hometowns or those suffering displacement and unrest in other conflict-ridden places.
We give away money that would otherwise be spent on lattés, pastries and ice-creams to the poor and the needy. The charity and generosity shown in this month strengthens the human bond and the message that there is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.
Ramadan is also a time of community; it is customary for Muslims to invite their neighbours and friends to share their evening meal – Iftar. Many families take it upon themselves to prepare food for the whole community to share. In the spirit of this sentiment, as part of the Mosque Iftar initiative mosques across the country will open their doors and invite people from their neighbourhoods to join in the evening feast. Another initiative, The Big Iftar, has been used by Churches and Synagogues as a tool to invite Muslims into their places of worship. These community Iftars are aimed at connecting those of different cultures and backgrounds, giving people an opportunity to make new friendships and experience the feeling of community and generosity that are abundantly displayed during Ramadan.
Communities coming together is more important than ever given the increasingly violent impact of anti-Muslim sentiments. Following the terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and attacks on other places of worship, the safety and security of worshippers in mosques has become a serious concern for Muslims. Muslims must remain alert but not allow terrorists to curtail their freedoms. As Muslims reach out to others in this holy month, we hope that politicians and media outlets also think about how they have enabled anti-Muslim hatred through their words and actions (or lack thereof).
Muslims view Ramadan as a tool that enriches our mind, body and soul. It provides us an opportunity to stop and think and reflect. By refraining from food, it allows us to think that we are connected with the entirety of humanity through very basic needs. It allows us to recognize the greed within and curtail that by giving and sharing with others.