On Monday, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began. Ramadan’s timing Is according to the Islamic calendar, which is based on lunar months that don’t correspond to the Gregorian calendar. This means that the start date of Ramadan moves back by about 11 days every year, and that although my family recently began our fifth year in Lebanon, this is the first time we’ve been in town for very much of it (since the kids and I travel every summer).
Last week, my daughter asked me why Muslims fast during Ramadan. My off the cuff answer was that fasting gives Muslims a constant physical reminder that they should be thinking about God during this month. Kind of like how Christians fast during Lent. (Fasting is common among Maronite and Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, who give up meat and dairy for the 40 days of Lent.)
Fasting is one of the five pillars, or duties, of Islam. According to Jennifer Williams, Muslim convert and author of the Vox article, “The practice of fasting serves several spiritual and social purposes: to remind you of your human frailty and your dependence on God for sustenance, to show you what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty so you feel compassion for (and a duty to help) the poor and needy, and to reduce the distractions in life so you can more clearly focus on your relationship with God.”
Ramadan lasts 29 to 30 days, depending on the moon. It’s the month during which Muslims believe the word of God was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and “the gates of heaven are open wider than ever.” Practicing Muslims are urged to abstain from food, drink, smoking or sexual activity from dawn to dusk. Exceptions are made for anyone who should not fast for health reasons, whether it’s diabetes, pregnancy, or old age. Children aren’t expected to fast until they reach the age of “religious observance” – the exact age varies between Shia and Sunni and according to each family, but around age 12. Younger children are encouraged to fast as much as they are able.
Now that my daughter is in Grade 6, many more of her Muslim classmates are fasting – roughly half, she estimates. Some of the non-Muslims were curious about fasting – wanted to try it out, to show solidarity. They aren’t the only ones curious about it – this post by Alex Teplitzky on Medium.com about observing Ramadan as a non-Muslim came into my inbox this week too. I told my daughter she could try it, as long as it wasn’t on an exam day – because final exams started today.
My daughter skipped breakfast Wednesday, but was feeling dizzy by midday. Her Muslim science teacher insisted that if she was becoming ill, she needed to break the fast, so my daughter headed to the cafeteria and bought some lunch. It was clear to her that abstaining from even a sip of water is no easy feat, particularly in the 85-degree (30C) weather.
In many other Middle Eastern countries, the rhythm of life slows way down during Ramadan. Not so in multi-religious Lebanon. I feel for the students who have to take their final exams on hollow stomachs. The same teacher handed out exam preparation tips that included a note for fasting students: suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, should include foods rich in fiber that can help sustain energy levels and the feeling of fullness – fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, brown rice and wholegrain bread, and low-fat protein sources including skinless chicken, fish and low-fat dairy. Dawn in Lebanon was 5:27 am today, but calling it a “pre-dawn” meal is a bit misleading. Suhoor is supposed to be eaten before the first prayer time of the day – which today in Beirut was 3:43 am. Apparently some Muslims skip this meal, as getting up in the middle of the night to eat is even tougher than skipping the meal…
The other, better known Ramadan meal is iftar. This is the meal that occurs just after sundown, to break the fast. Today in Lebanon, sunset is at 7:48 pm. According to Hossein Kamaly, professor of Islamic Studies at Barnard College and interviewee of the New York Times article, “an important development, especially in the United States, is to welcome non-Muslims to ifṭars.”
Personally, I love this development. I was privileged to have been invited to two iftars in my last four years in Lebanon, but this year, I have been invited to two iftars just in the first week of Ramadan. Iftars remind me of Thanksgiving or Christmas in the US, where families and friends gather for an abundant meal. My friend who invited me to an iftar at her home today admonished me, “but this time, you have to fast!”
I was all for that until I received an invitation to a farewell cocktail party that I need to stop by in the hour before arriving to the iftar. Breaking the fast with a cocktail seems like a recipe for trouble. I guess my friend would tell me I should just not eat or drink anything at the cocktail party…
However, I’ve also read that if Muslims break their fast, they are expected to either make up with a day of fasting at another time of year OR provide a meal to a needy person. Phew. With all the Syrian refugee families in need here in Beirut, I can easily do the latter.
And if you’d like, you can help feed a Syrian refugee too.
If you are Muslim and have broken your fast, I have just the app for you. Last November, the World Food Programme launched an app called Share The Meal. One tap donates US$0.50, feeding a child for a day. The current campaign is raising funds to feed 1,400 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon for a full year. So Muslim, Christian or other, fasting or not, here is an easy way to help provide a child with an iftar (or a few) in one easy tap.
I’ve made my first donation, and am off to have that drink now… Can you spare a meal or two too?
Ramadan Kareem is one of the traditional greetings for this month, and it means “Generous Ramadan”. May Ramadan be generous to you, and may we all be generous to one another.