I'm going to be fasting for Ramadan for the first time. Where do I start?
August 31, 2008 7:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be fasting for Ramadan for the first time. Where do I start?

I am not a Muslim, but I do not want to get into that in this question. Please humor me and do not tell me how much or how little I am missing the point of Ramadan, I would just like ceremonial instruction.

I have already been reading the Qur'an and different histories of Islam for a little while now--so I've got the 'edification' part down. I'm just wondering ritualistically what I'm supposed to do.

I know I will have to wake up before dawn to eat a light meal (what does this entail exactly?), and then fast until sunset/dusk (depending on Sunni/Shia...I think I'm going to stick with the former because it's more mainstream). Then I think there's some kind of small meal after each day's fast including dates and water.

Outside of that I have no idea. Is this the main thrust of it, besides any special days in the month? Are there any special days in the month that I should be aware of?

Because I will not be praying in any way I guess I'm cutting out a large portion of what I might occupy my time with. Of course I will try to be a Good Person (tm). But still--I am looking for little things I might have missed. I like the little detail of dates and water after a day's fast--are there other little ineffable experiences of Ramadan that I can approximate, however sloppily, on my own? That is to say, is there some thing that kids always do, or a place where people tend to congregate, or a particular item that tends to go on sale during Ramadan that I should keep my eye out for?

Essentially: I will be at school in Massachusetts and I will stick to it as vigorously as I can, though if I have a cigarette in the morning I do not think I will feel that I have transgressed. I am primarily doing this to put my feet in someone else's shoes.

(bonus question: fictional and non-fictional first-person accounts of Ramadan would be welcome)
posted by parkbench to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, things I should not do--besides the obvious eating, drinking, and sexing during the daytime--are also welcome.
posted by parkbench at 7:13 AM on August 31, 2008

Just so you know, the whole idea of this is very iffy. From your post, it sounds like you are turning one of the Pillars of Islam into a (not even especially serious) class project, and you really can't blame anyone who takes offense at this whole idea.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:59 AM on August 31, 2008

I don't know where you go to school, but you might talk to your Muslim students' group. At my university - and probably a lot of others - they do a lot of outreach and educational events during Ramadan, organize a fast for non-Muslims, and use the whole thing as an opportunity to raise money and do volunteer work for local food pantries and the like.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:24 AM on August 31, 2008

Respectful disagreement with paisley henosis here. Fasting for Ramadhan is one of the number one things people do before converting to Islam..

Definitely hang out with your local muslims, let 'em know you are fasting and they will be all over helping you out. You will be invited to tasty iftar dinner at folks' houses. That's the big social bit of ramadhan, and the socialising/partying until late hours.

It's a good time to edify and elevate yourself - get into a daily quran reading habit and read some good blogs. Facebook has lots of good ramadhan groups, join a few.

A nap is a good way to occupy the afternoon if you can.

Get eid cards and presents for your friends - Eid, the end of Ramadhan, is a big holiday deal in the Muslim world!

Have fun, ramadhan is awesome. Ramadan Mubarak! It's a community event so get into it that way.
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:40 AM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

o and it's a GREAT way to quit smoking :)
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:40 AM on August 31, 2008

@parkbench-- nothing to add, except that as a non-Christian who was made to celebrate Christmas and Easter all my life, and a non-Jew who added the Jewish holidays to our family's calendar so my kids would understand that there are different traditions in the world, I've been thinking about doing this too, and in fact have "practiced" fasting periodically over the past 3 months in preparation. So good for you to try to learn firsthand about how other people experience the world.
posted by nax at 8:46 AM on August 31, 2008

Here is a good prayer time calculator: http://www.islamicity.com/PrayerTimes/. Just enter your location info, select the month-long calendar, and right now it will default to Ramadan. The resulting list will show the beginning and end time of all the prayers, but you'll be using it only for the Fajr (dawn) times and the maghrib (nightfall) times. The Fajr times are the times the fast begins each day, and the maghrib times are the times the fast ends each day each day. Between these times those who are fasting abstain from eating (including little things like breath mints), drinking (including water), smoking, and anything that causes orgasm or will get them overly sexually excited. Those are the the only requirements of fasting. A lot of other things are recommended.

One recommendation is to eat an early meal as late as possible to the time the fast starts. This isn't considered trying to cut corners, but it is a recommended practice of the prophet Muhammad (sas) who said that there is a blessing in this meal. Another recommendation is to take advantage of the huge savings in time to do more good deeds and acts of worship. There are also extra prayers that are recommended during this month. I only mention them because it's an important part of the traditional practice.

It is common to break the fast with dates and water, then pray the evening prayer, then have the evening meal called iftar. Many mosques will have iftar gatherings every evening, or at least on some evenings. These will be very simple or very elaborate depending on the cultures and financial means of the local community. It is also common to have iftar gatherings in people's homes. These generally end soon after dinner so people can make it to the mosque in time for the extra evening prayer that happens in Ramadan, which people like to pray in congregation.

Islam is practiced in so many different cultures that traditional foods vary widely. In most cultures it is customary for at least children and sometimes the adults to buy a new outfit and wear it for the first time on Eid al-Fitr (the first day after Ramadan). In my house we like to saute a few garlic cloves and a small, diced onion, add a couple of cans of fava beans, mash into a pulp, add diced tomatos and minced parsley, and eat this with bread. It is really heavy and stays in your stomach for a long time. People also say that eating yogurt in the morning helps control your thirst during the day, but I think it's just one of those things that people say.

The lengths of the fasts different in different years due to the varying lengths of t ime between dawn and nightfall. The fasts this year are quite long for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It will be a challenging first Ramadan! I hope you'll obtain a lot of spiritual benefit from this.
posted by cozysister at 9:11 AM on August 31, 2008

I think it's kind of a cool idea, and I'm not a religious person. But why not get some religious materials from a mosque? Ramadan is a time of sacrifice and donations to charity. Most of the Muslims I know are very proud of the tradition, and might well be happy to talk to you. I know that the Canadian Muslim Congress welcomes many non Muslims at their events. I would imagine there is a similar organization near you.

Muslims kids here (and there are a lot in my neighborhood) spend meal times together for support in school for moral support. I don't think Ramadan is meant to be a solitary activity at all. From what I see in the Turkish and Arab restaurants, the evening and morning meals are not that small, and people seem to make it a sociable as well as spiritual time.

Can wait to hear what Muslim Mefites have to say. I've always been curious.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 9:14 AM on August 31, 2008

By the way, what cozysister is talking about is a variation on fool medammes. OM NOM NOM!
posted by By The Grace of God at 9:22 AM on August 31, 2008

To answer your question about the special days in the month of Ramadhan, the last ten days are considered especially auspicious, and people sometimes stay at the mosque overnight to partake in prayers in congregation. The reason for that is Laylatul Qadr [the night of power, literally] is supposed to occur during the last ten days of Ramadhan, and according to some others, during the odd nights in the last ten days. You mentioned you've been reading the Quran, so you can read the short chapter on Laylatul Qadr [Surah 97, Al-Qadr].
posted by asras at 9:54 AM on August 31, 2008

A lot depends on the sect and the country. My only experience is from Morocco where I lived. They usually have a regular breakfast before dawn with whatever food you normally have for breakfast. They break their fast with dates and milk, and then a little later have more of a meal with a bowl of harira (lentil soup), bread, tea, sweets. Around 10 pm they have a full dinner, usually special food not just the usual dinners from the rest of the year. A lot of people go out after dinner and hang out in town, walk around etc. The shops are open late, everyone is out and there are often special events just for ramadan; the feel is really festive in the evenings.

Some things to remember are that you really shouldn't be doing anything bad during the day (well, ever, but that's another story) which includes thinking bad thoughts, swearing, fighting, lying, having sexual thoughts, etc.
posted by kenzi23 at 10:44 AM on August 31, 2008

This thread turned out to be full of interesting information. Apologies for my previous, apparently ignorant post.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:17 AM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Kuwait Times, August 31, 2008: "It is presumed that after a month of food abstinence until sundown, people would normally lose weight. For some Muslims that is the case, yet for many it probably isn't.

So says Dr. Yousef Bu Abbas, President of the Kuwait Medical Association's Obesity Organization and Consultant in Endocrinology, revealing that medical studies he carried out in the Arabian Gulf region, showed that most people gain between four and seven kilograms during Ramadan. (...)

Food in the Arabian Gulf predominantly depends on carbohydrate-filled rice and desserts that usually contain animal fat, such as 'Halwa.' People in the Arabian Gulf tend to eat much more in Ramadan, while simultaneously taking less physical exercise.

The doctor suggested that exercise is a vital factor in the month of fasting, in order to balance food intake and weight gain. More attention should also be paid to the quality and amount of food eaten, with salads and fruits taking priority, as well as green tea at the end of each meal.

Sleeping after breakfast is a common habit amongst people in the Gulf, which Dr Bu Abbas advised against. He also warned against excessive eating, emphasizing that one should only eat to assuage hunger."

"Some Turkish Muslims will use appetite suppressing diet patches to help them get through the daily fast during the Ramadan holy month, Anatolia news agency says. (...)

The patches, which release appetite-suppressing ingredients to the body through the skin, cannot be considered as corrupting the fast because their effect amounts to "showering or applying a pomade on the skin" rather than eating, theology professor Kerim Yavuz said."
posted by iviken at 11:48 AM on August 31, 2008

In Bosnia, we had a big feast before Ramadan (which we call Ramazan, as do many Muslim countries outside the Arab world.)

During the month of Ramazan, we eat a good breakfast early in the morning. It's the same stuff we always eat (bread, eggs, meats, juice and so on.) Some people don't drink coffee (which is strong "Turkish" coffee and a mainstay of all Bosnians), though some do.

In the evening, after sundown, we eat a big meal.

The idea is to abstain for alcohol for the entire month, go to the mosque at least once a week (some go every day, but Bosnians are not, for the most part, very strict about this), do many good deeds, think only good thoughts, and to not smoke during fasting times. There is an emphasis (more environmental than conscious) on self-reflection.

The end of Ramazan is like the world's greatest party. People dress up and attend the many events, sheep are slaughtered and feasts begin. There is LOADS of drinking, smoking and quite often a lot of generally naughty behavior. Everyone has a great time; families get together, friends meet and the sort of "reflective" quality of Ramazan dissipates almost immediately.

For me, the parallel is with Lent and something like Mardi Gras, though kind of in reverse order.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:44 PM on August 31, 2008

I lived in Morocco, too - and I found that it's lots harder to observe Ramadan on your own (ie here in the States) than in the atmosphere of joy and excitement I found there. So, take the advice upthread, and make it as communal as possible - that's one of the best parts, really.

OH - and if you want to get a proper teapot for making mint tea, that might be fun. My l'ftars were always mint tea, bananas, dates, and yogurt. I wanted to eat the whole table, but simply couldn't - so as mentioned above, I just waited 'til later, then had a bigger meal.

As for special days, there's always the لیلة القدر, but as a non-Muslim, it may not mean so much to you.
posted by Liosliath at 5:05 PM on August 31, 2008

You're technically not supposed to put anything in your mouth during the daylight hours of Ramadan, so you totally will have transgressed by smoking. That being said, I happened to be in Turkey during Ramadan once, and one of the guys at the hostel (who was Turkish and a Muslim) smoked, although he freely admitted, glumly, that he was breaking the rules of Ramadan.

BTW, interesting story, many Egyptians gain weight during Ramadan. So stay away from those parties...the most interesting thing about Ramadan in Egypt is that, because pretty much everybody does it (something like 90% of the population is Muslim) but Egypt is overall a less religiously-strict country, it becomes a lot less like a holy month (although that part is there too) and a whole lot more like "the Holidays" or something, with a month's worth of pre-Ramadan ads, loads of decorations and food to buy, etc. Focus is on prayer and mindfulness, sure, but ultimately people are people, no matter what the religion of that country. So for a lot of Egyptians it seems to become more about partying all night than it is about fasting during the day. I'm just saying, don't rent an apartment near Ramses station during Ramadan. I didn't, but a friend of mine got no sleep.

My favorite thing I've heard or read about fasting for Ramadan is Rumi's poem on fasting:
There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
On practicality: the one time I did a Ramadan fast, I felt no hunger...I didn't eat a morning meal, but the night before I ate a medium schwarma kebab and a battered and fried sausage (both Halal, which somehow made it even better). This filled me up and kept me full for the next day. I suspect loading yourself with sturdy calories like this will make the fast a bit easier, although there is something to be said for the hidden sweetness as well.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:29 PM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you do not feel that smoking is transgressing, then you are, indeed, missing the point.
posted by xanthippe at 6:00 AM on September 12, 2008

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