Today marks the first day of Ramadan for Muslims around the world. Ramadan is held during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and commemorates the time where the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad. Ramadan is a month of fasting and is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, the others being belief in one God, charitable giving or tithe, the call to pray five times a day, and if financially and physically possible, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
It is a time of fasting and prayer where Muslims are to abstain from food and drink as well as smoking and sex daily from the time the sun comes up until dusk. At sun down the fast breaks with a special fruit drink and dates, after which a meal is eaten. This ritual is held daily for a month. All are to take part except for the very young, the sick, the elderly and those who are pregnant. Ramadan is also a time when calls for Zakat, or charitable giving, increase.
Just like the diversity of Muslims world-wide, the practical practice of this month-long period of fasting varies from family to family and country to country. I was probably around 9 years old, and had already witnessed several years of the practice of Ramadan when I began to understand a bit of what it meant for those surrounding me in Pakistan. As a Christian white kid, it was an annoyance. Why couldn’t we buy Fanta when we were on a family trip? Why did we have to be careful where we had our picnics, to not eat publicly lest we offend?
As I grew, so did my understanding of this faith tradition and the truth claims of Muslims. When I moved to Egypt I would have talks with our Muslim friends about the significance and discipline of fasting and prayer, a reminder of something bigger than we were. We would be warmly invited to attend the iftar celebrations (breaking of the fast) at sunset, eating, laughing and talking with our friends. While during the day the world surrounding us felt oppressive, once the Call to Prayer signified the breaking of the fast, people would break into party mode, eating special foods and drinks late into the night. Colorful Ramadan lanterns were hung on balconies and trees bringing a festive air during the evening, a stark contrast from the heavy atmosphere during the day.
Update 2021: Rachel Pieh Jones new book PIllars is an indepth look at how an outsider grew in knowledge of both Islam and her own faith by living in a Muslim country. You can purchase Pillars here, and listen to some podcasts with the author here.