So one of your friends is Muslim and is fasting for the month of Ramadan. You probably have several questions on your mind about it. What is Ramadan? What exactly is an iftar? It’s tempting to answer these questions based on your experiences, thoughts and insight. However, as your fellow Muslim classmate, I am going to debunk some common thoughts that you probably have regarding Ramadan and iftar.
When you hear the words Ramadan and fasting, the first word that probably comes to your head is “commendable.” It’s easy to imagine yourself trying not to drink or eat for 16 to 18 hours straight despite the constant human temptation to eat and drink. Therefore, the usual response I get for telling others about Ramadan is, “Wow, I commend you for the amount of sacrifice you put in; I certainly would never last.” While this compliment is genuinely flattering, it misses the point about why Muslims fast in the first place.
Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, and it is a time when Muslims fast in order to come closer to Allah, and thus reflect on our blessings. When we experience hunger and thirst all day, we are encouraged to be grateful for all of our blessings. The experience also encourages us to give to the needy and extend kindness to those around us. It also allows us to practice forgiveness toward others in hopes of gaining Allah’s mercy. Despite a small sacrifice of hunger and thirst, there is a huge spiritual gain out of the month. We use those feelings to gain a higher spiritual standing with Allah in hopes of atoning for our sins and being a better person.
There is also the assumption that Muslims fast for 30 days straight. First of all, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Not only is fasting for 30 full days a mental marathon, but humans can typically only go without food for 21 days and without a drink for four days.
More importantly, if Ramadan were just a mighty starvation test, it’s hard to see how that would bring Muslims closer to each other and to Allah. The temptation to eat and drink would be so high it would essentially be counterproductive. Fasting is not a test of grit, but rather a chance to be closer to Allah.
Another common misconception is that Ramadan falls at the same time every year. It does fall at the same time every year, but by a different calendar system. Ramadan is actually part of the Islamic calendar, which is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar and has no leap days, and thus varies annually. If you wanted to mark this date on your calendar to be considerate to your Muslim friend, simply do a Google search for the exact starts and finishing dates for Ramadan.
Now for the iftar: the meal with which Muslims end their fast at sunset. A lot of people don’t know what exactly happens when Muslims break their fasts, but let’s start with what doesn’t happen. You would assume that once iftar time rolls around after a daylong fast, Muslims would just pig out on a dinner table. But not only is that not right; it is actually against many of Islam’s teachings.
There is an etiquette in Islam to eating a meal, and that especially holds true in the month of Ramadan. Part of the practice is moderation in eating and not filling the stomach. In fact, according to Hadith, the words, actions and mannerisms of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, Muslims should divide their stomach into three parts: one-third for food, one-third for drink and one-third for air. The key word is moderation: It would be counter-productive for a Muslim to have a bloated stomach because Ramadan is still going on, even after they break their fast.
Additionally, one of the five pillars of Islam is salat, or prayer. Devout Muslims try their best to pray five times a day – you may have seen your fellow students do this behind Kerckhoff Hall. The prayer at the time of breaking the fast is the Maghrib prayer, and it would be hard to pray with a bloated stomach because it would be difficult to focus and be closer to Allah.
Moreover, practitioners are advised by Islam to eat with a group and not keep one particular food to oneself. In fact, a lot of iftars around the Muslim world are done in a family setting during which scarfing down food would not just be impolite, but would also be impractical. Sharing is natural when it comes to eating in moderation. Everyone in the family would gather around the dinner table, with food and beverages in the center, to exchange conversation, and have a more beautiful and relatable experience.
Finally, feel free to participate in iftar even if you are not Muslim. Chances are your Muslim classmates would be excited to bring you along. If you need help on how to behave and what to expect in an iftar, take a look at “An Iftar Guide for Non-Muslims” on Al-Talib’s website or just ask that classmate of yours who is taking part in Ramadan.
Aali Akmal is a third-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student and a staff writer for Al Talib news magazine.