Fasting is one of the fundamental elements of Islamic faith. Muslims are told that fasting is prescribed to them as it was prescribed to other or previous nations. Like the compulsory and optional prayers, there is compulsory and optional fasting. Most of the description here is about the compulsory or obligatory fasting in the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. As Islamic calendar follows rotation of moon around the earth, or it is a lunar calendar, which is about 10 days shorter than the conventional or solar calendar, Ramadan comes 10 days earlier every year than the previous year. Muslims all over the globe generally follow the same calendar except some disagreement about the 1st and last day of Ramadan, which is discussed later.
Fasting is for adults though children or early teens are encouraged to fast. Travelers or people with sickness can be excused from fasting. Women during menstruation and labor are also excused. They all are advised to either fast after the situation is changed or resolved or do the compensatory charity, depending upon the particular situation.
The month of Ramadan starts with sighting of the new moon, which has become the source of the difference of opinion. Unlike the old times, when the only way to determine if the new month has started was to find out if the new moon has been sighted or not, there are ways now to precisely determine when the moon may be sighted, even if it is an overcast sky. In practice, some people still follow the old tradition and start the month of Ramadan based upon the Local Moon-sighting. Many others start the month if it is reliably sighted anywhere in the world, the so-called Global Moon-sighting. In our center, we follow the Global Moon-sighting.
The Ramadan starts right at the sighting of the moon and Muslims enter into a special physical and spiritual mode or state of mind for the next whole month. Starting with the same evening, they also start a special congregational prayer, the Taraweeh prayer, after the regular Isha prayer. Nowadays, you may notice more people coming to a masjid in Ramadan, including for this prayer, than other months.
The special congregational or Taraweeh prayer in Ramadan is performed at night after the Isha prayer. It may have 8 to 20 rakaas. The tradition is to recite longer portions of the Quran in each rakaa than what is normally done. The Quran was revealed or conveyed to the prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings of God be upon him) through the angel Gibraeel (Gabrial) (may peace be upon him) and it was specially repeated and practiced in the month of Ramadan. Muslims all around the Globe, in the Taraweeh prayer, try to do something similar and recite or listen to the whole Quran in 20-30 days. All along the history, to this day, there have been people who have memorized the whole Quran, the Huffaaz (plural) and Hafiz (singular), who lead this prayer. In some places, they take it even to a higher level and read another set of Quran only during the last 10 days, after finishing one in the first 20. Typical Taraweeh prayer lasts for 2-3 hours.
Fasting, described simply, is abstaining from eating, drinking and intimacy from dawn to dusk. In reality, it is much more demanding and involved. One has to be constantly God conscience and avoid anything that God has prohibited or disliked for us. This may be described as not using our eyes to see something we are not supposed to see, our ears to hear something we are not supposed to hear, our hands to do something that they are not supposed to do, our feet to go somewhere we are not supposed to go and our mind, time and effort to use it in a way we are told to avoid. We are asked to spend time in God’s remembrance and perform more than the usual compulsory prayers. We are asked to read and recite the Quran and reflect on it. We are asked to be extra generous with our charities, especially to our families and neighbors, maintain our relationships and pay the Zakat if we have not already paid. We are asked to feed the hungry and help the travelers and prisoners. Ramadan in fact is an opportunity or blessing given to us every year to change our life and life-style altogether.
Every day in Ramadan starts with waking up in wee hours and a meal, the so-called Suhoor or Sehri. We are not used to eating at that time and some even like to avoid it. We are told that there is special blessing in eating that meal, even if it is just a small amount or a few dates and water, and it is strongly recommended. In most Muslims households and localities though, Suhoor is a festive looking time. The whole neighborhoods wake up, sometime even making sure that others have waken up, and make and enjoy meals that they might not regularly make except for this particular time. In non-Muslim countries, the same happens, though on a smaller family scale.
The meal at the end of a fast has also become ceremonial and is more noticeable even in non-Muslim environment. Typically, the fast ends with sunset and it is recommended to break it by eating or drinking something, as soon as possible. It is not recommended to delay it further. After breaking the fast and before the formal dinner, there is Maghrib prayer. Over the years and centuries, Muslims all around the globe, depending upon their own taste and cuisines, have developed certain special dishes and meals that they make for breaking the fast and the dinner afterwards. Out of affection to the prophet, may peace and blessings of God be upon him, the two items common to all these might be the plain water and a few dates.
The Ramadan ends with the sighting of the next moon, leading to one of the two major celebrations or holidays for Muslims, the Eid-ul-Fitr, which translates into celebration of charity. To mark this day, an obligatory charity is due upon every able leader of the household on behalf of every person in the house, including the one who might have born that same morning. This charity is only valid if disposed before the Eid prayer that day and ideally is delivered to the local needy right away.