Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Teen's Guide to Islam: Ramadan


So, after a kind request from a lovely educator I know on the Interwebs, I decided that perhaps it was time to take on a new project. This project was originally called, “The Teen’s Guide to Islam: The Basics,” but since that original post racked up almost fifty questions from both my own head and sweet, curious contributors, I thought that it might be prudent to break it up into short and sweet topic divisions.

And, seeing as we’re in major moonsighting/stalking masjid website announcement mode, why not introduce you guys to one of the most anticipated months in the entire Islamic calendar?

Hang on tight, my dear readers, because this is…

The Teen’s Guide to Islam: Ramadan

(I could have come up with a cooler title. If I myself was cooler. Alas on both counts.)

So. What is Ramadan, anyway?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. (Just so you know, if we were having this conversation in real life, I’d totally sidetrack the entire discussion by singing this. You’re welcome for the adorable and informative earworm.) 

There are many reasons why Ramadan is seen as an important and sacred month in the Islamic faith – mainly because a lot of cool and historical stuff is known for occurring within it. But I’ll give you the Cliffs Notes version:

  1. The Qu’ran, our Holy Book, was revealed during Ramadan – specifically on the Night of Power, or Lailatul Qadr. That’s near the end of the month, so let’s talk about that again near the end of the post. 
  2.  During Ramadan, Muslims who have reached puberty and are in good health do not have food or drink from sunrise to sunset, for all twenty-nine or thirty days it lasts. That’s probably the reason you’ve heard about it recently. 
  3. Fasting in Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islamic faith…which we’ll talk about in more depth at a later date. Suffice it to say, it’s very, very important. 
Wait, no food or drink? At all? You just don’t eat for thirty days?

No. Don’t worry. That’s not what’s going to happen at all.

When I say that we fast from sunrise to sunset, it means that we get up in the wee hours of the morning when there’s no light outside yet – so, before sunrise, technically. 

We eat breakfast (which is called suhoor) and brush our teeth and do whatever else we have to that involves ingesting something – and as a side note, if you know any older Muslim sisters who might get a little cranky with you during this time of year, it’s because if you want to go back to sleep, coffee and chai are a bit of a no-no. 

And then we pray Fajr, which is the first prayer of the day, and we either hit the hay again for a little bit of shut eye if we can manage it – or we start getting ready for school or work.

Like a boss.
Credit goes to the talented Tumblr artist, serendipikitty.
(Seriously, I don’t know why people don’t appreciate how metal Muslim students and professionals are around this time of year. You get up earlier than you do to prepare for school, you get your religious time in and then you head into the daily grind. And you don’t get coffee breaks during the day.)

What’s the deal about sighting the moon? Do you worship the moon during this month?

The Islamic calendar follows the patterns of the lunar calendar, which, as the name implies, follows the cycles of the moon. So when we turn out for moon-sighting, we’re literally trying to see the new crescent and figure out if a new Islamic month is starting. This happens year round, not just for Ramadan, but this is the time of year when it’s the most exciting to be part of a big group looking for the moon.

So, TL/DR: it’s not anything religious or devotional to the moon. It’s just science.


I heard Ramadan used to be in the winter. Why did you guys move it to the summer months? Doesn’t that make it harder?

It’s all about the lunar calendar, friend. Eventually, Ramadan will roll back around to the fall and winter months. It definitely makes it harder, but I like to think that eighteen-hour fasting days means more blessings to go around for keeping your cool and being kind to people. 

Is there anything else you have to avoid while you’re fasting besides food and drink?

Anything edible. Some people even avoid lip balm, because it might get into their mouth. When we brush our teeth or wash up before prayers, we try not to swallow the water or the toothpaste (which, you know, is already an acceptable and dentist-encouraged practice). Smoking is also discouraged.

Also, this is totally not on the side of eating or drinking, but you’re not supposed to get angry or start fights or be hateful or discriminatory or rude – which, I know, all normal things, but this is a month of blessings, community and unity, and particularly with rising temperatures, it’s easy for some people to get heated. Sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath and let something go. 

If something like water goes in your mouth, or you forget and accidentally eat, are you in trouble?

(This question, and the heart of its answer, are thanks to the mind of my wonderful friend Yasmin, one of the Writing with Color moderators. Thanks, Yasmin!)

Believe me, particularly in the early years, this happens to everyone. You’re out, it’s warm, your mouth is dry, you see a water fountain and those blessed little Dixie cups – you’re outside the door and sipping happily before it hits you in your stomach with a lurch.

Oh. It’s Ramadan.

I’m fasting.

Like I’ve already mentioned before, God is merciful. There’s no compulsion or pressure in faith for you to be positively perfect in every single way. We’re only human and we make mistakes and sometimes you think you heard the call to prayer at sundown and you can break fast, but you’re two minutes early.

One of the important aspects of participating in Ramadan is your intention. You had good intentions. You wanted to fast. I’ve always been taught that if you accidentally slip up, you just restate your intention to fast and continue forward with the rest of the day. No blaming, no guilt. 

Yasmin adds, “My non-fasting friends are really good about reminding me if I ever forget and reach for food, but it almost always happens every Ramadan and it’s not a big deal.”

What can you do when you’re fasting?

We are encouraged to do things that improve the world around us. Another facet of fasting is having empathy with those who are poor and needy and who do not have the privilege of eating during the day, if at all. A lot of Muslims volunteer in soup kitchens, prepare meals for needy families in their area, and give charity.

Muslims also devote themselves to reading the Qu’ran, particularly in its entirety and most often in Arabic, since that was the language it was revealed in. And, though it’s not mandatory, you’ll see a majority of masjids and community centers performing evening prayers after the last prayer of the day, Isha. 

These prayers are called Taraweeh and are considered an extra good deed to perform during this month, as well as a way to mingle with other Muslims in the community and spend some devotional time together. 

Are there any reasons you could get out of fasting?

Yes – and let me add for any Muslim teens reading along at home (hi, lovelies): do not feel embarrassed if you need to break your fast. Do not feel embarrassed if you aren’t fasting to begin with. You are fine. You’re still participating in a Holy Month.

In the second chapter of the Qu’ran, verse 185, note after the description of fasting in Ramadan that it continues on with, “…Whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of days. God intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship…” 

It’s right there in the Holy Book. If you’re ill, elderly, travelling or under a similar stress, you’re okay. You will have to make those days up later on in the year, but our faith stresses that there is no compulsion in religion. You don’t have to make yourself even sicker when God has told you that it’s okay to take a break.

This year, there’s been a lot of questions about kids with eating disorders, and the general consensus is that this falls under this same criterion: if you feel like this will be a stress on you, it’s okay. You can get up with your family in the morning if you want to. You can attend prayers and events and lectures. You can feed a fasting member of your family or in your friend circle. 

Just remember that God also wants us to take care of ourselves.

Do little kids have to fast, too? 

Actually, no. The official guideline is that when you reach puberty, you should be fasting for the entire month. Adding in considerations about maturity, health, weight, long fasting hours during the summer and other variables, little kids are generally discouraged to fast – for full days, at least.

I know I’m not the only Muslim kid who started out with half-fasting days. That meant my parents told me I could fast until the early afternoon, eat lunch, and then fast for the remaining hours left in the day, if I wanted to. That way, the kid feels like they are participating, are not placing strain on their bodies, and feel pretty darn good about life all around.

Of course, there are smooth operators like my younger cousin who sneak in full days sometimes by just not eating at the cut-off time. And, okay, I did that a few times myself. As long as kids are getting up with their parents and not fasting the entire month, though, they should be all good.

Is there any way I could help you while you’re fasting?

First of all, can I sincerely say how sweet you are?

Thank you.

Okay, first of all…I know this time of year, Tumblr in particular will be passing around a post that pretty much says Muslims can’t look at food pictures or their fast will be broken and to tag all food posts accordingly.

Now, I’m going to get all mythbuster here, folks. We can totally look at pictures of food. We just tend to not want to, for obvious reasons. 

(Well, most normal Muslims do. A few Ramadans, I’ve gotten in trouble with friends for browsing Foodgawker in their immediate vicinity.)

That said, it’s a very sweet thought to tag your food posts, or anything you feel might break someone’s concentration on Ramadan, so don’t be afraid to do that. I know a lot of Muslim teens online who appreciate that.

Beyond that, I’d think I would just suggest general kindness and friendship. Be aware that your Muslim friend is fasting and be respectful of that (ie. playing a game of, “Let me wave this lunch in her face!” is something I know you wouldn’t do and is obviously a no-no).

So after Ramadan ends, what comes next?

Eid al-Fitr, which is literally what I hear most little kids looking forward to right now (even though we’re just starting Ramadan). 

Slow your roll, kiddos.
Eid al-Fitr translates to mean the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” and, like the name suggests, means that we get to celebrate the end of a beautiful month with our families and friends.

Eid al-Fitr begins with a communal prayer that everyone is encouraged to attend. After the prayer, everyone is supposed to remain seated quietly while a sermon is delivered – usually on how we should carry the virtues and kindness of Ramadan in our hearts for the rest of the remaining year. 

And then, everyone exchanges Eid greetings and disperses to wherever else they may be celebrating.

I can’t speak for how others celebrate it, but in our community, there is usually a trip to Six Flags or an amusement park planned by the masjid or community center so the kids can enjoy themselves. My family personally doesn’t really dig amusement parks, so we tend to get together at a family member’s house, eat good food and watch a few movies.

So you get to eat on Eid, right? 

It is a festival! But yes, fasting on Eid is forbidden. That’s why moonsighting the night before Eid might be just as or even more anticipated than for Ramadan. Also, you might see a lot of families discussing whether or not their communities have decided on the same day for Eid. That’s why. There’s always worry that someone will either skip the celebration or be the person sitting in the corner and still fasting while everyone else eats.

Wait, not everyone does Eid the same day?

It’s a major issue, every year. In a nutshell, it all boils down to whether or not you follow the pre-calculated calendars or if you’d rather wait to see if the moon is sighted before you start Ramadan. Of course, at the end of the twenty-nine or thirty days, there’s another moon sighting for Eid, but if you started a day ahead or a day later, your community might have a different projected end date. 

Thankfully, the last two years – at least in my area – has seen agreement between both the precalculated dates and the moonsighting committees. So here’s hoping to many more!

You mentioned something before about a Night of Power? 

Thank you for reminding me! The Night of Power, or Lailatul Qadr, is the night on which the Qu’ran was revealed to the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him. It falls on one of the odd-numbered nights in the very last days of Ramadan, and Muslims tend to stay up on any of those odd-numbered nights, devoting themselves to prayer and meditation, because it is considered a night of great blessing and spiritual benefit. 

Usually, people take the 27th as the day when Lailatul Qadr is most likely to be, but that’s not confirmed or sealed in concrete.

One last question: could I share Ramadan with you? 

Dude, of course. Why not? Interfaith events and friends sharing and experiencing Ramadan is one of the coolest things. Feel free to try a day of fasting, or even half-fasting, which is something a lot of religious communities do in solidarity and friendship. If you want, you can also prepare food for a friend to break fast with – which is something that Muslims encourage for extra blessing – or accept an invitation to join a family (or your local masjid!) for Iftar.

To me, the heart of Ramadan is in kindness and humanity. If you want to be part of that, that’s just beautiful and exactly in the spirit of things. Thank you for being so sweet and awesome. 

Have another question about Ramadan or a question for the Teen Guides in general? Feel free to leave a comment, and Ramadan Mubarak to all!


Post a Comment