For Abdullah Alvarez, Ramadan is a time of intense focus on Islam. He tries to spend as much time at the mosque as possible, reciting Quran and attending any study circle.

One of the things which helped him last Ramadan was to create a schedule around the 99 names of God. He chose three names per day, adding on one extra name on random days, and recited them 33 times after every obligatory prayer in order to both grasp and appreciate all the names in the blessed month. This had a liberating effect on him, enabling him to view ordinary things in a different light.

“I felt as if I understood the Oneness of God in a much more intimate way than I had in the past,” said Alvarez, 21. “I felt at home, powerless, and peaceful all at the same time. Like a human being who knew what he was created for, and had no doubt concerning his Lord.”

“When Ramadan is with us, I [also concentrate] on not allowing the rewards of my fast to be lost,” remarked Abdullah Alvarez, of Madison, Wis. “I realize that fasting is more than just not eating. It is also about not getting angry, saying or thinking spiteful things about others, or looking at what’s unlawful. I view it as a time when I can really cleanse myself of all bad habits.”

All day, although he struggles to stay patient and avoid idle talk, he tries to keep his actions the same during Ramadan as in the other months. “[I feel] that I cannot put extra worship before my earthly responsibilities. I can’t use service to God as an excuse to slack on my duties,” opined Alvarez. “However, I do feel that God does give his servants energy for the day as He wishes. God can bestow upon you the ability to push yourself hard and achieve all your goals in Ramadan, as long as you strive for it.”

Zuha Ali remembers experiencing that almost 10 years ago, calling it her “best” Ramadan. “I was very focused and almost lost in another world. I felt like I just went through the motions of my worldly life but when it came time for prayers or Quran, I was rejuvenated and a whole person again,” Ali, of Sterling, Va., recalled.

After the early morning meal, she would spend two hours reading a chapter of the Quran along with the translation and commentary. Then, she would go to college and optimize her free time so that her evenings and nights would be spared for more worship.

“I did not sleep much that month but honestly, I did not feel the loss of sleep either. It was as if God were energizing me through Quran and prayer. It was indeed a beautiful month,” Ali, now 29, remarked.

With time, many changes have come to her life. “It was easier for me to devote myself that way (then) because I had no other responsibilities,” she said. “Now, as I care for my husband and son, and my house as well, it is not so easy to let go of everything and do what I did before,” she said.

Becoming a mother has meant that she was unable to fast regularly the last two years due to her medical condition during pregnancy and lactation. “It is important to remember that taking care of one’s family is also an act of devotion, and yet it should also be remembered that Ramadan only comes once a year, so we should try to do as much as we can,” Ali concluded.

Finishing the Quran and praying additional nightly prayers, either at home or in the mosque, are her typical personal goals for Ramadan. “At the beginning of the month, I find myself at the peak of spiritual energy. Unfortunately, as the month progresses, I find it harder to keep up with [my] goals,” Ali stated, mentioning that lagging behind in her reading of a chapter of Quran causes a dip in her spiritual drive and can break her cycle. “I know that this is a test from God, as the end of the month definitely carries more blessings just for this reason.”

In general, she makes a special effort to stay away from unlawful habits such as backbiting in Ramadan. “[I] just try to better my character during the month so that hopefully it will continue onwards in the months after Ramadan as well,” she said.

In fact, training one’s mind even as one faces worldly tasks and distractions is the true challenge of this blessed month. And, of course, the journey doesn’t end with the sighting of the moon for Eid – rather, it only begins, for no one can ever harvest the full benefit of Ramadan until they carry it with them throughout the year and onwards, feeling strengthened by its arrival each year of their remaining lives, God-Willing.

In that sense, Ramadan is all about beginnings – a training period for the mind, body and soul to harness important values and habits so that they embed themselves into one’s lifestyle.