For Muslims throughout the world, the sacred month of Ramadan is a time of great spiritual significance. Because it is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan begins at a slightly different time each year. This year it starts on April 13, and Muslims are required to fast during the daylight hours throughout the month.
Fasting in Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which comprises the essential ritual and devotional duties of all Muslims. The four other Pillars of Islam are confession of faith, five daily prayers, almsgiving and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Fasting in Islam is the practice of refraining from food, drink, smoking and sexual relations with one’s spouse during daylight hours. Various forms of fasting are common in all three Abrahamic traditions. Muslims fast during Ramadan, Jews fast on Yom Kippur and some groups of Christians fast during Lent. Many people worldwide find a meaningful connection between developing self-control and spiritual insight through fasting.
There are several key points about the purpose of fasting during Ramadan, which Muslims also call “the month of caring and sharing.” Staying hungry and thirsty for hours during the day is a powerful reminder of the millions of less fortunate people in the world. Ramadan emphasizes the values of empathy and generosity. We share food, time, love and respect with poor and needy people during Ramadan more than any time of the year.
Fasting also strengthens ties within our families, neighbors, friends and communities as we gather daily for fast-breaking dinners (called Iftars) and community meals to break the fast after sunset. Throughout my life, it has been rare to have Iftars with only my immediate family. When I was a child, we invited our extended family and neighbors to many of our family’s Iftars, and we always prepared special food during Ramadan.
When I moved to the United States many years ago, Ramadan became even more meaningful and delightful to me. I have enjoyed many community Iftars with people of all backgrounds. By sharing the Ramadan experience with them, I have learned about other cultures and faiths. An especially memorable Iftar event for me was hosted by a Jewish temple. Many Muslims and Jews, as well as Christians from five different churches, came together for that beautiful Iftar meal. It was truly a special time for me, and when I think about Ramadan, I always cherish such special memories.
Ramadan also reminds Muslims about how much God loves all of us in this world. When we experience thirst and hunger, we learn sincere thankfulness and appreciation for all of God’s blessings. It is often challenging to think about the value of our many blessings, such as food and clean water, at other times of the year when we have plenty. As we fast during Ramadan, however, we feel the need deeply. When it is time for an Iftar dinner, we are able to appreciate the value of a piece of dry bread or a cup of water. In return, we express gratitude and love for the One True God by obeying and worshiping Him.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) says, “Fasting is not only to restrain from food and drink; fasting is to refrain from obscene acts.” If we can turn down a delicious meal and refreshing drink when we are hungry and thirsty, we can also learn how to overcome other bad habits. I consider Ramadan to be a divine course offered by God every year to teach us how to become better people. We do our best to extend what we learn in this course beyond Ramadan to all year.
When Ramadan ends, we celebrate the first of the two great festivals (called Eid al-Fitr) that lasts three days. Muslims gather in large groups to perform the eid prayer and to visit our relatives, friends and neighbors. Children receive new clothes, jewelry, toys and other gifts, and parents teach the next generation the importance of following the Islamic obligations of fasting. It is a joyful time as we begin another year and remember the valuable lessons that Ramadan has taught us.
Mehmet Aktas is an assistant professor and John T. Beresford Endowed Chair in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Central Oklahoma. He has been teaching and doing research in mathematics for the last 15 years. He is married and a father of two sons. When not teaching and doing research, Mehmet enjoys volunteering in interfaith dialogue activities, playing soccer and going on hikes.