8 Things I Wish Non-Muslims Knew About Ramadan

published Jun 1, 2016
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(Image credit: Guillaume Paumier)

The evening of June 5 will commence the month of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims who will spend 30 days abstaining from food and drink and 30 nights in worship. Ramadan is, by turns, a challenge and a celebration, consisting of practices for self-betterment and traditions meant to elevate the soul.

You may know this already and are gearing up to make yourself available and accommodating to your Muslim friends and colleagues, but before you start quizzing the Muslims in your life on every aspect of fasting or swearing off food for the month yourself, here are eight things you should know.

1. I don’t care if you eat in front of me. Really.

There are sights and sounds that can compromise someone’s fast (excessive PDA, swearing, even lying), but seeing food is not one of them. We can look at food, I swear! I know it comes from a desire to avoid causing your friends discomfort, but effusive apologies and theatric food-hiding is unnecessary; I’d probably be looking at recipes on the internet anyways.

2. No, we can’t even drink water!

People who fast are encouraged to rehydrate throughout the night instead of filling up on food, in order to maintain energy levels.

3. Fasting isn’t easy …

Fasting is intensely difficult and it’s only the strongest among us who make it through without a nap — especially in the summer when sunset can push past 9 p.m.

4. But it is rewarding.

Ramadan gives you 30 days to stop relying on food and drink for emotional fulfillment. In a world that pushes us tirelessly to consume, a religiously stipulated time dedicated to refueling the soul and building constructive habits is truly refreshing. It’s a good time for new beginnings, and a good time to try and implement new habits with the knowledge that there are scores of other people working to improve themselves, too.

When done right, Ramadan fosters a beautiful balance between social responsibility and self-knowledge; Muslims are encouraged to spend time alone in introspection, but also to be present for one another. It’s a profound exercise in realizing that strong communities depend first and foremost on self-accountability, and that there is no self without responsibility to others.

5. You don’t need to fast with us.

Fasting is not a political statement nor is Ramadan a movement, and for that reason there is really no need to fast in “solidarity” unless you want to reap the benefits too.

6. The primary goal is to get closer to God.

Contrary to what many may say, Ramadan is not actually about feeling empathy with those living in poverty; Muslims of all social and economic standings fast Ramadan, including those who don’t have much to eat to begin with. Fasting serves many purposes, and Ramadan means many things, but the primary purpose outlined in the Quran is simply to attain God consciousness.

This is not to understate how central charity and generosity are to Ramadan, but rather that we can’t presume to really know how someone else feels with a 30-day experiment. If anything, a successful fast will reveal to us how lucky we really are, and how much further we can push ourselves to do good by others.

7. Ramadan is also a celebration.

I know many people have a hard time believing that Muslims are really willing or excited to be fasting in Ramadan, but it’s not just about the struggle. Throughout the month, an intense sense of connectedness permeates the air.

While the official celebration is on Eid ul-Fitr at the end of the 30 days, the entire month can be quite festive. Children are allowed to stay up later, and food, when available, abounds. Families open their houses to each other, and everyone is just that much more generous.

8. Ramadan looks different in different places.

The best foods are often reserved for Ramadan; in the weeks leading up to it families stock up on ingredients, portion out and freeze meats, and plan what the month’s charity is going to look like.

Depending on where you live, there are traditions and specific treats to look forward to: Rooh afza is a beloved iftar drink among South Asians; North and East Africans prepare burek and sambusas, respectively (these are flaky pastries filled with meats or vegetables), as well as soups reserved almost exclusively to Ramadan; and vimto (the fruity soft drink) has gained a surprising footing as an iftar essential in the Gulf. When these foods are prepared at any other time of the year, it can make the day feel just a little bit more holy.