Ramadaan: What is this observance?

September 22, 2007|By SULEIMAN BENGHARSA

Many in our community, and probably elsewhere in the country, ask those of us who are Muslims questions about Ramadaan. Some just make comments that some of us find offensive. In general, there is a substantial lack of knowledge about Muslims and their beliefs and practices.

The most obvious question that most of us Muslims are asked is: "What is Ramadaan?" Another is: "Do you all stop eating and drinking for 30 days?" Or, "You can't even have water?" One comment that we hear frequently is: "I feel bad for you people; your religion is really hard. I am happy that I don't have to do that!"

These questions and comments are most likely the result of poor performance on the part of us Muslims in our community and elsewhere in the U.S. We most definitely have not been pro-active in informing others about Islam, which is contrary to our beliefs.


We Muslims in the U.S. have always been communities in hiding. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have become even more neglectful of our duty to explain Islam to others. It is time we come out of our hiding places.

Let's hope that what follows will result in a better understanding of Islam and Muslims in our community specifically, and, in the U.S. in general. At this point, it is of the utmost importance to read the next few paragraphs without preconceived ideas and prejudices, which usually come from information spread by non-Muslims, and other unqualified people, about Islam and its adherents.

Ramadaan is the ninth month of the 12 Islamic lunar calendar months, which is based on the lunar cycle. Ramadan does not come at the same time every year. It actually comes 10 or 11 days earlier each year. The Islamic lunar calendar was established in the year 638 CE.

And now for the main course: Ramadaan is the time of year when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for 29 or 30 days, which is the duration of any month of the lunar calendar. In other words, any month of the Islamic lunar calendar does not last any less than 29 days and no more than 30 days. No, we do not fast for 29 or 30 consecutive days! God is not cruel.

The fast entails abstaining from food, drink, smoking, and spousal intimacy during the daylight hours of the month. The fasting is obligatory upon every sane adult. It is stated in the Quran that those who are ill or traveling substantial distances are not required to fast. These people can make up the fasting days they missed after the month of Ramadaan is over.

You might impress your Muslim friends, co-workers or neighbors, if you have any, by letting them know that the word "Ramadaan" is derived from an Arabic root word denoting intense scorching heat and dryness. They will be very impressed because most Muslims do not know this detail.

You might impress the Muslims you know even more, if you let them know that the word Ramadaan is so called to indicate the heating sensation in the stomach as a result of thirst and/or hunger. Again, don't be surprised if your Muslim friend or acquaintance is not aware of this.

I would be doing the reader an injustice if I continue talking about Ramadaan without providing some background about Islam first.

The word "Islam" is an Arabic word that means surrender and/or submission. Submission or surrender to what? Submission or surrender to the will of Allah (or God), who is the Creator of all that exists in time and space.

Well, you may ask, how do we know what the Creator's will is, so that we can submit to it? We Muslims know what the Creator wants from us through revelation or divine scripture, which in this case is the Quran.

Muslims believe in all the revelations that were given to all the prophets and messengers of God, including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). They all surrendered and submitted to the will of their Lord. Muslims believe through their scripture - the Quran - that all the prophets and messengers, and those who followed them, were instructed to fast as a form of submission.

The submission or surrender lies in that we do not fast when and how we feel like it, but rather when and how God wills it. If we fasted when and how we humans wanted to, it would be considered submission to our own whims and desires, and not to the will of God. So, obeying the divine injunction of fasting during Ramadaan is one of the ways Muslims submit or surrender their will to that of the Creator.

Muslims believe that this is one of the most sincere forms of submission and worship because only you and God Himself know whether you are really fasting. A person could very well claim to be fasting, but he or she could take a sip of water or a bite to eat when no one is looking. God is all-seeing and all-knowing, according to Islamic creed.

But, one may ask, what is the purpose or goal of all this? According to the Quran, it is to achieve a level of piety or God-consciousness that will help keep us from committing the kind of sins that could lead us to hellfire. If we are able to abstain from food, drink and sex, which are our most basic of human needs, we should be able to develop enough discipline to refrain from the sins that lead to our demise in this world and the hereafter.

Suleiman Bengharsa is an

Imam/Islamic chaplain in the

Maryland Correctictional Institution south of Hagerstown and a member of the Islamic Society

of Western Maryland.

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