By Laura El Alam
Ramadan is right around the corner. If you’re new to Islam, and this will be your first time observing the holy month, you might have some questions. Here is a Ramadan Cheat Sheet to get you started.
- Fasting basics. Able-bodied adult Muslims fast from dawn to sunset every day during the entire month of Ramadan. In Islam, fasting requires us to give up food, drink, and intimate relations during daylight hours. There are some people who are exempt from fasting: prepubescent children, the elderly, and people with chronic health problems for whom fasting would be dangerous. Other individuals – women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and people who are traveling long distances – are entitled to delay their fast and commit to making up any missed days in the future. Finally, when women have their monthly period, they should not fast during those days, but should make up the fasts after Ramadan is over (and ideally before the next Ramadan begins). For more tips on fasting, check out this article about prepping your body, mind, and soul.
- It’s all about intention. At the beginning of the holy month, we should make the intention that we will be fasting for the sake of Allah. We don’t even need to say our intention aloud; Allah will hear our heart’s commitment. Other possible benefits of fasting– like better health, weight loss, enhanced self-discipline, and the ability to empathize with those who are less fortunate– are not the primary purpose of Ramadan.
- Why do we fast? Allah tells us in the Quran: “O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will become mindful of Allah.” Becoming mindful of Allah – taqwa–is also translated as “God-consciousness” and is the actual purpose of fasting. When we deny ourselves food and water we are obeying our Creator and trusting His wisdom. We are striving to please Him and earn Paradise.
- Timing matters! When it comes to fasting, we shouldn’t estimate when to stop eating, and when to start again. But how do we know the exact times? There are a couple ways to keep track:
- Most mosques print and distribute free Ramadan timetables based on their geographical location. Make sure to get a timetable from your local mosque because a mosque far away from you will have slightly different times. You can often find these schedules online, as well, on mosques’ websites. Most Muslim families hang their timetable in a visible place, like the refrigerator door, because they need to consult them daily, and times change slightly as days become longer or shorter. If you are confused about anything related to timing, reach out to your local mosque for clarification.
- Another option is to install a prayer time app on your phone. There are many free versions that use your location to calculate prayer times and the exact times of dawn and sunset. Some popular apps are: Muslim Pro, Muslim Directory: Adhan Times, and Athan: Ramadan 2023 & Al Quran. Keep in mind that most of these apps will show the time fajr –the first prayer of the day– enters. You must finish eating and drinking before the first light of dawn and before fajr enters. The apps will also show the time that maghrib–the fourth prayer– enters. That will be at the time of sunset, and that is when you may commence eating and drinking.
- What is suhoor? This is the meal eaten before dawn (before fajr prayer enters). It is highly recommended to wake and eat a healthy meal and to drink a good quantity of water before you begin a day of fasting. Try to consume foods that will give you sustained energy, such as proteins and whole grains. It is wise to eat hydrating fruits and vegetables and to avoid overly-salty foods, as those will increase your thirst. If you wake and eat suhoor, you automatically show Allah your intention to fast.
- What is iftar? At sunset, Muslims break the fast, and this is called iftar. Traditionally we eat a date and drink some water or milk, as this was the practice of our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Many times, especially at a mosque, after enjoying a date and a drink, we will immediately pray maghrib and then eat a larger meal.
- Why are there so many people at the mosque? During Ramadan the Muslim community often comes together to break the fast and pray taraweeh – optional prayers after isha (the fifth and last obligatory prayer of the day). Taraweeh is prayed in sets of two rakats each, similar to normal salah. The shortest taraweeh is 2 rakats, and the longest is 20 rakats, and Muslims are welcome to pray as many of those units as they wish. Taraweeh prayers are completely optional, but most Muslims like to take advantage of Allah’s generosity during Ramadan and strive to do as many optional acts of worship as they can. After all, the reward of every good deed in Ramadan is multiplied by 70! Many mosques provide free iftar meals throughout Ramadan. These meals are either home-cooked or catered and sponsored by members of the community. Sometimes they are potlucks. Mosque websites will often advertise the details of their community iftars, and attending the mosque in the evening can be a wonderful way to spend Ramadan. Breaking our fast with our brothers and sisters in faith reminds us of how united, supportive, and loving we are supposed to be to each other. It gives Ramadan a festive feeling, and certainly spirits are high when people take their first bites of food and sips of water after a long day! Frequently Muslims host each other in their homes, as well, during Ramadan. These are sometimes called iftar parties, and in Muslim-majority countries, there are even suhoor parties in the pre-dawn hours.
- What if I’m alone? For new converts, Ramadan might feel lonely. If you have no Muslim family members or friends to fast (or break the fast) with, the month is definitely more challenging and less meaningful. I encourage you to attend your local mosque if possible. Enjoy an iftar, introduce yourself to some congregants, and stay for at least a few rakat of taraweeh. If you meet some people and speak openly about being a new convert, you will often find a warm welcome, and quite possibly some new friends.
- Is Ramadan a month of misery? While some non-Muslims assume Ramadan is a holiday of deprivation and difficulty, it is in fact welcomed warmly by the vast majority of Muslims. The month becomes a time of community bonding, increased worship, nearness to God, and hope for God’s forgiveness and mercy. Many times an iftar feels like a wholesome party with family, friends, and delicious foods from around the world. Ramadan should bring out the best in us. Muslims are supposed to abstain from bad behavior as well as food and drink, and so ideally we are more kind, patient, charitable, and friendly during Ramadan. This takes considerable self-control, of course, and not everyone can live up to this ideal consistently. When a person lapses into grumpiness, bad habits, or negative behaviors, it is a sign of human weakness and not a reflection of Ramadan.
- Your efforts are magnified. Remember that during Ramadan, every step you take towards learning about your faith, becoming more obedient to Allah, and improving your habits is rewarded abundantly. There is no better time to discover, improve, and refine your Muslim identity. Set some goals for yourself based on where you are in your journey. If you know very little, then just focus on basics like wudu (ablution), prayer, and fasting. If you’ve already gained a good deal of Islamic knowledge, then challenge yourself to learn and worship even more. When your heart connects with Allah beautifully because you are dedicating all your actions to Him, Ramadan will become your favorite time of year.
Have more questions? Call 877-WhyIslam or visit whyislam.org. You deserve to know!
Author bio: Laura El Alam is a first-generation American Muslim and the author of over 100 published articles. She has written a children’s book, Made From the Same Dough, due to be released in 2023. You can visit her online at www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.