From faith to fasting
Expected to begin on May 5 this year, discover what makes Ramadan a truly special time for the faithful
For many, Ramadan is primarily characterised by fasting – the practice of abstaining from all food and drink between the hours of sunrise and sunset. While this is certainly an important part of the Ramadan experience, it is just one of the many elements that come together during the holy month as Muslims turn their gaze inwards and reflect on their faith. This special time of year is also a unique opportunity for visitors to learn more about local culture and customs while joining in some cherished traditions.
Known as the holy month, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and always starts two weeks earlier than the previous year. The exact date of the beginning of Ramadan is determined by the sighting of the new moon or ‘hilal’. When the slight crescent makes its appearance in the evening sky, the start of the holy month is announced. The following morning, at the first light of dawn, fasting commences.
This year, Ramadan is due to fall between May 5 and June 4 or as soon as the official Moon Sighting Committee spots the hilal. At the end of the month, when the hilal is once again observed, the three-day Eid Al Fitr festival to break the fast begins. The occasion marks a special time for families and friends to come together and enjoy the spirit of the season.
Nasif Kayed, general manager of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), explains the different elements of practising Islam, especially during the holy month. “Part of the faith involves fasting during Ramadan. The idea is to teach discipline, perseverance and patience. It also makes you watch yourself very closely.
“During daylight hours, between sunrise and sunset, Muslims must abstain from all food, drink, smoking, gossiping and cursing. While outsiders might think this a daunting prospect, many followers look forward to the holy month each year. “The whole community does it together. It would be more difficult if you were the only one,” he adds.
“Of course, there are some Muslims who don’t anticipate the arrival of Ramadan as eagerly, but those who dive into it are rewarded by enhanced spirituality. Many of us really look forward to it because it makes us feel great to practise being good.”
The early part of the holy month is often the most challenging. “The first three days are very difficult for almost everyone, but as the month goes on, it gets better. By the time you’re used to it, it ends. You feel so purified that you could continue to live like it past the end of the month,” Kayed explains. When the sun sets, the fast ends for the day and followers can enjoy the iftar meal. It marks an opportunity for friends and family to come together over a delicious feast each night during Ramadan.
As well as gatherings at home, hotels across the region serve luxurious iftar buffets incorporating authentic Middle Eastern specialities like dates, hot and cold mezze, pickles, olives, roasted meats, tagines and juices. Later in the evening, a second round of food is served in a meal called ‘suhoor’, which is the last meal before sunrise. Some eat it as an early breakfast before the first prayer.
All through the year, Muslims pray five times a day, but the prayers just before sunrise and just after sunset during the holy month take on extra significance as daylight fasting begins or ends. Performing ritual prayers five times a day is another pillar of Islam and is called ‘salat’. Many read the Qur’an more frequently and intently during this time, memorising parts of the text and reciting the Muslim profession of faith, called ‘shahada’, more often. Ahead of prayer time, worshippers perform ‘wudu’ or ablution to cleanse the face, hands and feet before presenting themselves to God.
“Ablution is the physical and mental preparation before you step into conversation with your lord,” explains Kayed. “The prayer is identical every time. All over the world, Muslims say the same words reflecting the same principle: to be good and recognise blessings.”
Another major part of the holy month is ‘zakat’, one of the five pillars of Islam that requires Muslims to give to the poor and needy during Ramadan. Feeling hunger from fasting is also a fitting reminder of the suffering of others and the need to be charitable towards those in need.
“During Ramadan, charity counts in every way. You can feed, clothe or give money. You give from what God has given you,” says Kayed.
Delving into the significance of the joyous three-day Eid Al Fitr celebration, Kayed says: “After breakfast and prayers, everyone dresses in new clothes to meet each other, starting with the oldest in the family and then visiting extended family. All three days are about spending time with loved ones and having fun together.”
It’s also common, though not obligatory, for families to give gifts especially to children during this special time as Muslims around the world come together to mark the end of Ramadan for another year.”