Fasting (“sawn” in Arabic) during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims believe the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, was first revealed to Muhammad during the month of Ramadan, but that the practice of fasting began with Abraham.
Fasting is an act of obedience and submission to God through which Muslims seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. Fasting is a promise to God, and Muslims express their intention to fast each day by saying, “I intend to observe fast for today.”
Fasting during Ramadan is mentioned once in the Qur’an. “Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Qur’an as a guide to mankind, with clear signs for guidance and judgment between right and wrong. So every one of you who is at his home during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period should be made up later” (2:185).
Fasting during Ramadan is required of every Muslim who is mentally and physically able, and who is not traveling or ill. Women may not fast during menstruation or while pregnant or nursing. Any days of fasting missed or broken must be made up at a later time. Eating, drinking (even swallowing anything), smoking or having sexual intercourse breaks the fast and the day must be made up.
The list of acceptable and unacceptable activities during the fast is lengthy. For example, gargling should be avoided since water may be swallowed. Brushing one’s teeth is permitted, but swallowing water or toothpaste breaks the fast. Kissing or embracing a spouse is not prohibited, but is discouraged.
The daily period of fasting begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. After dark and before dawn, Muslims may partake of those activities not allowed during the hours of fasting. A light meal is eaten before daylight to begin each day of the fast. After dark, Muslims may again eat and drink.
Fasting reminds Muslims that God provides all things. Hunger pangs also remind Muslims to sympathize with those less fortunate. Special prayers are said during Ramadan. Muslim men may seclude themselves in a mosque for the last ten days of the fast to seek God’s special blessing. Muslim women may seclude themselves at home.
The 27th night of the month is known as the Night of Power. Muslims believe this was the night God first revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad. God is said to honor every Muslim’s request during the Night of Power.
The end of Ramadan is celebrated with a festival called Eid ul-Fitr. It is a day for expressing joy and giving thanks to God for a successful month of fasting. Fasting is prohibited on this day. Special alms are given to needy Muslims. During the festival, children are given gifts. Gifts may also be given to mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Muslims are encouraged to dress in their best clothes on this happy occasion.
Ramadan will begin on Nov. 16, 2001, in the United States and end on Dec. 14. Since Muslims use the lunar calendar, the dates for Ramadan change by eleven days each year. The month of Ramadan, and therefore the fast, may vary by a day in different parts of the world depending on when the new moon is first sighted.
Gary Leazeris the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc. He received a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi College, and a master’s of divinity and doctorate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of research have been the New Age Movement, the occult, sects and the world religions. He served on the staff of the Home Mission Board’s Interfaith Witness Department for 14 years.
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