What is Ramadan?

Hopefully all of my East Coast readers are safe and recovering from Irene!

Today is the last day of the Ramadan fast, and the Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of Breaking Fast) will start at sunset, so I thought this an appropriate time to talk about Ramadan.  Firstly, though, I should point out that there are still some blogroll links for charity donations to your right – I’ve added the American Red Cross (who, among other things, are offering help for those affected by Irene) and to UNICEF (if you haven’t heard, there’s a very severe famine in Somalia at the moment).  Again, I’ve tried to focus on groups that can do a lot with a little money – as it’s the end of the month, if you did just get paid and do have a fiver to spare, consider spending it to make someone’s life better.

So, what is Ramadan?  As probably many are aware, Ramadan is a month of the Muslim calendar (a lunar month, so about 28 days), in which Muslims fast from both food and water from sunrise to sunset.  The fast was revealed in the Qur’an, during the Medinan period, in which the early community of believers were living in Medina and at war with the polytheists in Mecca.  Before the revelation of the Ramadan fast, the Muslims used to participate in the Jewish fasts, and are still allowed to do so.  There is also an optional fast, which a Muslim can make as often as they like.  However, out of concern for one’s heath, a Muslim is not allowed to fast for more than one day less than half a year (so 181 days).  In addition, those on long journeys and pregnant women do not participate in the Ramadan fast, although in the case of those traveling, they are expected to make up the days they miss.

Many Muslim thinkers have understood the fast as a statement about sin, meant to demonstrate for Muslims that if they can give up what they need and what God has made of their provisions (that is, food and water), how much easier to should be for them to avoid sin and wrongdoing, which is not needed and distracts from life.  It’s also often described as a statement on our essential humanity, meant to remind Muslims that all humans are the same, and need the same good things to live.

In addition to Eid al-Fitr, the festival that ends the fast, the other major holiday during Ramadan is Laylat al-Qadr[1], the Night of Revelation, which commemorates the night of the first revelation to Muhammad (peace be upon him).  According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad (s’lm) was alone mediating in the mountain cave outside of Mecca, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him, telling him he was to receive a message from God.  Muhammad (s’lm) responded that he couldn’t receive a divine message because he was illiterate (a topic I’ve talked about here), to which Gabriel replied, “Iqra!” (meaning “Recite” and also the root of the term Qur’an), at which, the Prophet spontaneously recited the first received verses of the Qur’an, verses 1-5 of sura al-alaq (number 96):

“Recite: in the name of thy Lord who created.  Created man from a clot.  Recite: and thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not.”

The night is normally celebrated with Qur’anic recitations, as well as the eating and general merriment that go along with evenings during Ramadan.  Many Muslims also spend the night as a night vigil in prayer (a tradition called isha’a).

If you do know any Muslims (or just like shouting things at strangers), there are several standard sayings for celebrating Eid, including “eid al-mubarak!” and “eid al-sa’id!” (both meaning “happy eid” – incidentally, ‘eid’ is usually pronounced eed, and the apostrophe in ‘sa’id’ signifies a glottal stop, meaning it’s pronounced as two syllables, ‘saw-eed’).  An important part of the celebration is providing food and well-wishes to your neighbors, as well as giving to the poor (and generally having a really big party).  You can also send eid ecards, as well as donate money for an eid celebration for disadvantaged families around the world.  So basically, there’s a big party starting tonight that’s all about our shared humanity, it’s a pretty fun time, you might want to check it out.

[1] The term ‘qadr’ is difficult to render into English, and is sometimes translated as ‘power’, ‘probability’ or ‘value’.  I tend to render the phrase ‘laylat al-qadr’ as the night of revelation since that’s what the holiday commemorates.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to What is Ramadan?

  1. Wow! Thank you! I permanently wanted to write on my blog something like that. Can I take a fragment of your post to my site?

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