An Indian Muslim offers prayers before breaking the Ramadan fast in Hyderabad on July 1, 2015. Muslims globally mark the month of Ramadan by abstaining from eating, drinking, and smoking as well as sexual activities from dawn to dusk. (Photo by AFP)
Muslims all over the world have begun their holy month of Ramadan in which they will abstain from all food and drink from dawn till dusk for 29 to 30 days.
Fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is obligatory for all adult Muslims, except those who are elderly, sick or traveling. Pregnant and nursing mothers and menstruating women are also exempted from keeping fast during Ramadan. However, it is mandatory to make up for the missed days as soon as the cause of delay is gone.
Observing Ramadan is principally an exercise in spiritual self-purification. A fasting Muslim is required not just to deny himself food, drinks, and sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk but is also expected to practice patience and selflessness. During the month of Ramadan, a person observing the fast has to abstain from all evil including lying, backbiting, cheating, lewd conversation, loss of temper and greed.
"He who does not give up uttering falsehood and acting according to it, God has no need of his giving up his food and drink," said the Prophet Mohammed.
So, the month of Ramadan in which the Holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammad is not just about 'physical fasting' but a great opportunity to purify and detoxify one's inner self and attain new spiritual heights.
A Muslim who abstains from food, drink, and smoking learns to empathize with the physical suffering and hardships of others.
Experiencing hunger and thirst motivates the believer to alleviate the hunger, thirst, and miseries of those around him. Deprivation and hunger nourish the soul of the believer as he learns to show mercy to all fellow human beings and keep the mind focused at submitting to God's will.
A person abstaining from lust, evil deeds, and thoughts gradually frees himself from the shackles of physical desires, greed, and other undesirable habits. The essence of fasting is to weaken and harness the forces that are Satan's means of pushing the believer towards destruction.
On one occasion, the Prophet Mohammed said: "There are five things that break the fast; telling lies, backbiting, telling tales, perjury, covetousness, and lustful eyes."
A time for prayer and charity
Another noteworthy aspect of Ramadan is that in this month, Muslims can be seen engaging in various types of charitable activities. Many Muslims choose Ramadan to pay their Zakat or "compulsory charity" which is 2.5 percent of one year’s total cumulative wealth as well as a voluntary charity called Sadaqah.
Even during Eid, the feast that comes at the end fasting, it is customary for everyone who can afford it to donate a sum of money and hence is also called Zakat-al-Fitr so that the poor will also be able to celebrate the festival.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of Islam's five main pillars or the framework of the Muslim life. They other pillars are testimony of faith, prayer, giving zakat or support of the needy and the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once for those who are able.
During Ramadan, Muslims begin their day with a pre-dawn meal called Suhoor or Sehri and the fast ends with Iftaar, a lavish meal served after sunset, taken usually with family, friends and community members. It is customary to break fast by eating dates before beginning the Iftaar meal.
Muslims can continue eating and drinking throughout the night until the next day's Suhoor. During Ramadan, special evening prayers are conducted during which long portions of the Quran are recited. These special prayers are known as Taraweeh. At the end of the Ramadan month, Muslims celebrate the Festival of Fast-Breaking, called Eid al-Fitr.
Fostering communal harmony
In India, Ramadan has become synonymous with the 'month of food' and Suhoors and Iftaars have assumed the proportion of a huge commercial food industry. Ramadan evenings in India are special as Muslims and non-Muslims throng markets to buy their favorite Ramadan delicacies like fritters, kebabs and desserts.
In Kolkata and some other Indian cities the most special item of the traditional Iftaar platter is haleem, a rich mishmash of pulses, meat and oil tempered with strong spices. In interreligious India, people cutting across all religions can be seen queuing up for hours at haleem shops to have their bowls of the piping hot dish, topped with generous quantities of butter, freshly cut coriander, green chilies and slices of lemon.
Another feature of the month of Ramadan is the lavish 'Iftar-parties' where people belonging to every faith come together and enjoy choicest of non-vegetarian culinary delights, sherbets and fresh fruits. Even during the Suhoor hours, markets come alive as people throng special street shops and eateries to have their fill of hot curries, breads, sweet vermicelli, and biryanis.
Muslims also organize Iftars and Sehris for the poor and various free meal centers are set up in Muslim-dominated localities where the needy are served free meals and Sehri and Iftar kits. In poverty stricken streets of India, we also see a good number of non-Muslims taking part in Iftar parties hosted by Muslims which in a way help foster communal harmony in society.
In cities like New Delhi, tourism companies organize food walks and special Sehri and 'Iftar-events' for foodies to explore Ramadan’s traditional flavors and culinary treats.
In an age when Islamophobia has become a global phenomenon and Muslims are being equated with violence and terrorism, a Muslim who is in a state of fasting, exercising patience, self-restraint, kindness and mercy can help dispel the misconceptions of Islam being a religion that promotes terror.
Umarah Jamali is a journalist based in Kolkata.