Monday morning, Sept. 1, I left my hotel in Columbus, Ohio, before daybreak. The weekend at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America had been eventful and full. Not really expecting there to be anyone ”or any food ”in the breakfast room at such an early hour, I was amazed to enter a crowded elevator and emerge into a busy lobby and noisy dining area.
Suddenly, the situation made perfect sense when I realized that the first day of Ramadan was beginning that very dawn. Muslim families, friends, and new acquaintances sat talking quietly together, having already completed their early morning prayer and their meal at 5:30 a.m. Their devotion to the disciplines of Ramadan was very impressive.
Ramadan is one of the holiest seasons of Islam. This year it will be celebrated around the world Sept. 1-30.
Ramadan is popularly known as “the fasting month.” It is, in fact, a month during which pious Muslims fast ”neither eating, drinking, nor engaging in sexual activity ”from sunrise to sunset. All adult Muslims are expected to follow this discipline of fasting during Ramadan, except when illness, uncleanness (e.g., during menstruation) or pregnancy keeps one from participating. It is a mark of pride ”and also an unofficial rite of passage ”when children first observe Ramadan, a practice that may begin at any time from age eight to 15, depending on the culture.
Fasting is the fourth “pillar” of the Five Pillars, or observances, of Islam. The first is the confession, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger.” The second pillar is prayer, performed five times a day ”at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, evening and night ”while facing the holy city of Mecca. The third pillar is giving alms to the poor, both that required by law, assessed at one-40th of one’s income, and that which is voluntary, often donated at the mosque on Fridays. The fifth pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca, incumbent upon all Muslims at least once in their lifetime.
Whereas the confession of faith is intended to be perpetually on the lips and heart, prayer is practiced multiple times per day. Almsgiving is often done weekly, and the pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Fasting comes around every year and lasts an entire month. Some would say that is why Ramadan represents personal sacrifice.
I rode to the Columbus airport from my hotel with two Muslim men ”the elderly shuttle driver and a young physician from Baltimore. Both men were observing Ramadan.
The internist was hurrying to catch a flight back to Johns Hopkins hospital in time for the beginning of his 36-hour duty cycle, during which he would constantly be on call, making rounds, seeing patients, doing follow-up. He admitted that the demands of his residency gave him little opportunity for sleep during his long shift, so that keeping Ramadan was a real effort ”but a spiritual requirement to which he was willing to submit. (The word “Islam” means “submission.”) He pointed out that due to Ramadan’s falling late in the summer this calendar year, the days are even longer and the sacrifice just a bit harder.
The taxi driver was not as astute in his explanations, but equally expressed his commitment to fast because that is what Muslims do. With no real theological sophistication, he nonetheless noted that Ramadan helps him think more about the one God. A chance for spiritual reflection is, indeed, a duty for Ramadan, when people can focus not on the satisfaction of their basic drives but on the blessings that Allah provides. Perhaps that explains why the ISNA convention theme this year was “Ramadan: A Time for Change,” for the fast allows each Muslim the space and time for making a change not only in behavior, but in attitude, commitment, and spiritual awareness.
As the month draws to a close, Muslims will commemorate the “Night of Power,” when Muhammad received his first revelation of a portion of the Holy Qur’an. Then, Ramadan ends with a wonderful breaking of the fast called ‘Äªd al-FiÅ£r, a time for family celebrations, gift exchange, visits to elderly relatives, shared feasts, gathering with friends in one another’s homes and special prayers offered in the mosque.
For more than two decades my family and I lived in the largest Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia. Year after year, we observed our Muslim friends and neighbors submitting to the rigors of Ramadan so that they might draw closer to Allah. And, year after year, we also saw the anticipation and excitement that built throughout the month culminating in ‘Äªd al-FiÅ£r, when in homes all around us families and friends got together to express their gratitude for being Muslim and their joy in another year of successfully keeping this beloved Pillar of their faith.
Rob Sellers is Connally Professor of Missions at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas.