The Iftar, or the breaking of the fast, is one of the most significant points in the day during Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Observing Muslims will abstain from all food and water — yes, even water — from the crack of dawn all the way until sunset, every day of this month. Since the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, each year Ramadan falls at a slightly different time. When Ramadan falls in the winter, the fast will be shorter; in the summer it can be quite long and intense.
What Is Iftar?
Iftar is the main meal of the fasting day, which occurs at sunset every day of Ramadan. The initial breaking of the fast isn't a huge meal; it's typically just a date and a glass of water or some other type of drink such as fruit juice or milk.
Once the initial fast is broken, worshippers will break for prayer, which lasts anywhere from five to 15 minutes, and then return to eat a larger, more substantial dinner type of meal.
The fast itself is considered a purification of sins and a time to cleanse mind, body, and soul. Feeding a fasting person is believed to come with great reward from God and therefore many individuals, organizations, mosques, and community centers will offer an Iftar gathering in which the breaking of the fast is celebrated. It's usually not a ceremonial affair, although at many community gatherings this is often seen as an opportunity to educate and create an inter-faith gathering with delicious food, friends, and conversation.
Here's What You Should Know Before Attending Your First Iftar
Here are some of my top tips for anyone who has never been to an Iftar gathering before. You don't want to feel unprepared or uncomfortable in your surroundings.
1. Want to attend an Iftar? Ask a Muslim.
If you really want to attend an Iftar, simply ask a Muslim. Often times we're not sure if you'd be interested and don't want you to feel obligated to accept. If you're really interested, just say the word. You will probably get many more than just one invitation that way, as we love to entertain and host people and believe that guests are a blessing and an honor.
2. Don't feel the need to bring anything.
Don't worry about bringing anything, particularly something edible, as that will all be taken care of by the host. If you really feel uncomfortable arriving empty-handed, fresh flowers are always a welcome gesture.
3. Dress in modest attire.
Casual, modest attire is most likely the best choice of clothing for both males and females. You can always ask your host if you're not sure.
4. Don't worry about fasting beforehand.
It's definitely okay to come to the Iftar if you've eaten that day and even if you're not super hungry. You don't have to have fasted all day to feel welcomed or in any way accept an invitation to an Iftar.
5. Make sure to show up on time.
It's important to be punctual when attending an Iftar gathering, whether it's at someone's home or at a larger gathering. The fast is broken at exactly sunset time so it's important to be there and not miss the opportunity to experience that. Usually dates are passed around as the food of choice with which to break the fast (it was a tradition of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, to do so).
6. Leave your shoes at the door.
Leave your shoes at the door if you're attending Iftar in a private home. If the Iftar is in a public space, this will most likely not be the case.
7. Know what happens after you break fast.
Following the breaking of the fast with a date or two, you will most likely be served water or something else to drink and then some sort of savory or crunchy item like a samosa or something similar. Depending on where the host is from, the foods will vary.
8. Don't worry about participating in prayer.
After the appetizers are served, most people will begin to leave the dining area and go to pray the sunset prayer. Do not feel obligated to leave your seat or to attend the prayer in any way. The prayer will usually take under 10 minutes and you will see people piling back in to continue eating the main meal.
9. Expect a full meal.
The main foods served at an Iftar depend on the culture or the menu the host decides upon. It's served much like any dinner with a main dish, sides, salads, non-alcoholic drinks, desserts, and coffee or tea at the end.
10. You don't need to participate in taraweeh.
Last, but not least, this may be the most important lesson I learned after attending my first Iftar. This is the one time where it's perfectly acceptable to basically eat and run. There is something called taraweeh, or the night prayers, during Ramadan. These are usually held at mosques during the night. Most people don't want to miss those prayers and so they are in a bit of a time crunch to pray, eat, maybe go home to take some rest, and change or whatever they need to do before those prayers begin. These prayers can last up to two hours per night. There is such a huge emphasis on prayer and reading the Qur'an in this month that lingering around after the Iftar meal isn't the biggest priority.
So, feel free to eat, have great conversations, learn something new, and then head home at a decent hour without any obligation to stick around longer than your bedtime.