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Ramadan: A Month of Reflection, Awaking, and Renewal -I

İbrahim Özdemir

Visiting Scholar of Islamic Studies Abo Akademi University, TURKU

Ramadan is everywhere: Muslims all over the globe are welcoming and observing this holy month. Ramadan has been changing and transforming individuals, families and societies alike. So, let us look at and try to understand the meaning of this special time.

"Ramadan" is an Arabic word, which literally means "parched thirst" and "sun-baked ground." It expresses the hunger and thirst felt by those Muslims around the world who spend the daylight hours of this month in a complete.

As opposed to other holidays--when people often indulge--Ramadan, by definition therefore, is a time of sacrifice and reflection on the meaning of that sacrifice and bounties given us by Allah. This pious reflection leads to a spiritual awakening and renewal. Therefore, it is a time for inner reflection, devotion to Allah, altruism, and self-control. We Muslims think of it as a kind of tune-up for our spiritual and physical well-being.

The entire cycle takes around 35 years.

In this way, the length of the day, and thus the fasting period, varies in length from place to place

over the years. Every Muslim, no matter where he or she lives, will see an average Ramadan day of approximately 13.5 hours.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

From Dawn to Dusk

The daily period of fasting begins with the breaking of dawn (an hour before sunrise) and ends with the setting of the sun. In between--that is, during the daylight hours--Muslims completely abstain from food, drink, smoking, and marital sex.

The usual practice is to have a pre-fast meal (suhoor) before dawn and a post-fast meal (iftar) after sunset. If you fail to wake up and consequently miss the pre-fast meal, you will fast for nearly 24 hours.

Children do not observe the fast during their fragile growing years. However, young people at the beginning of puberty are required to. Parents train their children over a few years, beginning when they are about six years old, to fast, from the observation of half days at the beginning to complete days later on.

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There are specific situations in which we are not required to observe the fast. The Qur’an exempts the sick, travelers, women approaching childbirth and nursing, and very old people from fasting (the Qur’an, 2:185). However, in practice all these exempted groups try to fast with the rest of Muslim community. Many Muslims who do not practice their religion during the rest of the year join their brothers and sisters in fasting and prayer during the sacred month of Ramadan.

From the silence of night, the adhan (call to prayer) is called. Beautiful notes of praise are carried on the night air and fill our homes and ears with peace and tranquility, and more, with a sense of belonging. We sit quietly and answer the adhan, remembering “prayer connects us to the Lord and therefore is the way to success”.

Ramadan is also a month of physical, moral, and spiritual struggle: rising earlier than usual, continuing to work through hunger, reading and studying the Qur'an, and doing extra worship in the evenings and sometimes late in the night when Allah is even closer to us. It is a common practice for Muslims to break their fast at sunset with dates, following the custom of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This is followed by the sunset prayer, which is followed by dinner.

Since Ramadan emphasizes community aspects and everyone eats dinner at the same time, Muslims often invite one another to share in this evening meal.

When I was in the States, I observed that many mosques organize fast-breaking meals and invite everyone to join them. Fast breaking thus turns to a platform of understanding, sharing, and dialogue.

Jean-Louis Michon, the French scholar of Islamic civilization, reminds us:

One needs to have lived in a Muslim town during the month of Ramadan to understand how much a rite performed individually gains in strengthif not in depthby being practiced simultaneously by an entire people.

Even before the sacred month starts, during which the fast must be observed from dawn till sunset, the city trembles with joyful anticipation.

For, despite the very real trials of hunger and even more, of thirst during the hot afternoons, the whole month flows by in an atmosphere of joy. [Michon, JJ. (2008) Introduction to Traditional Islam: Foundations, Art and Spirituality]

However, we also know that fasting during Ramadan was not a new prescription from God to His creation; rather, it was prescribed with all the prophets that came before our Prophet (the Qur’an,

2:183.)

Another important point is the interfaith dimension of fasting. Today, we live in a world beset by complex problems challenging future generations and us. To respond to these challenges, a common understanding and cooperation is necessary. As John Renard summarizes:

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“Few challenges loom larger in the search for justice and world peace than the achievement of mutual understanding among nations, cultures, and religious traditions.

For people who profess faith in a sovereign God, few responsibilities are more urgent than that of moving toward a sympathetic appreciation of other faiths.” [The Foundations of Islamic Religious Experience]

Therefore, better understanding, communication and peaceful relations between our communities are not only good, but they are essential for our well-being and for the well-being of the world at large.

Today, despite all technological, scientific, and economic developments, people are starving.

Sir Anthony Atkinson, the godfather of inequality research, in his new book Inequality: What can be done? underlines that the “greatest danger to the world” is inequality. Unjust social structures thwart the poor and hungry in their attempt to change these conditions. [Atkinson, A. B. (2015). Inequality, (Massachusetts: HUP]. When fasting, we should always bear in mind the facts regarding poverty, hunger, and inequality in our global village.

In essence, hunger is the most extreme form of poverty, where individuals or families cannot afford to meet their most basic need for food, and Hunger manifests itself in many ways other than starvation and famine. Most poor people who battle hunger deal with chronic undernourishment and vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which result in stunted growth, weakness, and heightened susceptibility to illness.

Countries in which a large portion of the population battles hunger daily are usually poor and often lack the social safety nets we enjoy, such as soup kitchens, food stamps, and job training programs. When a family that lives in a poor country cannot grow enough food or earn enough money to buy food, there is nowhere to turn for help.

Therefore, it is an ethical and religious imperative for all of us to respond the challenge of poverty and hunger. The sensitive and sincere members of religious communities, especially the children of Abrahimic family, should join their effort and energy to minimize the effects of poverty, be messengers of peace, and prevent any possible war.

Fasting gives us a new spirit and the opportunity to understand the experience and full meaning of hunger during this holy month and to help the needy.

opportunity to understand the experience and full meaning of hunger during this holy month and to

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