HOUSTON - Despite the U.S. having a sizable Muslim population, there remains a lot of confusion when it comes to how they worship or practice certain religious rituals like Ramadan, which this year begins Friday, April 1st in the evening.
According to an article from Pew Research, about 53% of Americans say they don’t personally know anyone who is Muslim, and a similar share (52%) say they know very little or "nothing at all" about Islam. As a result, it’s understandable why there remain questions about Muslims in America observing Ramadan.
This is partly because for one, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the celebrations take place.
According to an interview with an Imam (religious leader), Ramadan tends to follow a Lunar calendar and the sighting of the New Moon.
"[Ramadan] is set on a lunar calendar, so it occurs 11 days earlier every year, so it's not necessarily the exact same season every year," Imam Jihad Muhammad said. "So if you practice long enough, inshallah (God willing) you will observe…Ramadan in many seasons."
Additionally, it is a challenge to properly define Ramadan, as it means different things to other people. And the answers to various questions may come as a surprise, so just in case there is curiosity about things some might be too shy to ask, we’ve got you covered with some frequently asked questions.
What is Ramadan?
In the simplest terms, Ramadan is an Islamic holiday (like Lent) where Muslims fast - abstain from food and drinks (even water) as well as other things perceived as vices – from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. Muslims also take the holy month to consider those less fortunate, practice patience and devote time and energy to helping others.
"Ramadan, actually, the name itself comes from the [Arabic] word Ramad, which means to burn or to be hot," Imam Muhammad explained. "And so Ramadan is looked upon as a month of using fasting, to burn away the impurities of our souls, of our characters and get ourselves in tune or in compliance with the will of God."
Fasting for Ramadan VS Intermittent Fasting
Dr. Hasan Gokal, a Muslim doctor with more than 20 years of experience argues fasting during Ramadan is more difficult than simply just dieting or even not eating during a particular window of time, as demonstrated in Intermittent Fasting.
"Ramadan fasting is in fact, much more difficult," he said. "And the reason why it's more difficult is because you're talking about not eating or drinking anything from sunup to sundown."
"So with intermittent fasting, you can kind of see all right, you have you know, 12 hours, 14 hours, 16 hours, you get the shift in between, you can drink water, you can drink, things like coffee, and on drinks like that, that don't have calories in them," Dr. Gokal continued. "But here you're not having anything from sunup to sundown. And depending on the area of the country you live in, that can be a really long time can be up to 18 hours like that. So it is truly much harder."
Not even water?!
The fact that fasting during the day involves not even drinking water tends to catch people by surprise. However, this also includes anything that might even be considered mind-altering like smoking or even engaging in sexual activity.
"From dawn to dusk, and there is no eating, there is no drinking, there is no sex, and we abstain from any supplements, vitamins, anything of that nature that can give the body sustenance," Imam Muhammad said. "So we don't only fast from the appetites of the stomach but we also fast from appetites of pleasure...so that really constitutes that physical part of the fast, but it's a fast for the total body.
"You know, it's a fast for the body, fast for the mind, fast for the spirit, so we abstain from anything immoral, anything that would compromise our integrity or our moral life, we abstain from doing those fasting hours," he continued.
Can you lose weight during Ramadan?
There are conflicting thoughts on whether you can actually lose weight from fasting during Ramadan, and according to medical experts like Dr. Gokal, there’s a reason for that.
"It depends, and many people do take advantage of that and do lose weight and find themselves at the end of the month to be lighter and feeling better," he said. "But more often than not, people just sort of pig out at the end of the night, and you know, make up for more than the calories that they lost during the daytime, so that kind of is dependent on what you want to accomplish out of it."
Are there exemptions from fasting?
While fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for all practicing Muslims, there are certain exceptions including if you have health conditions that impede you from doing so, are too young, or are traveling.
"The fasting at least for Ramadan fasting is not meant as hardship; it's supposed to be a training: a spiritual and physical training endeavor," Dr. Gokal said. "So those who would be considered hardship or be elderly, if you are pregnant, you're not supposed to fast, and we know that the fasting and depleting fluid and calories during pregnancy is harmful to the fetus, so nobody really wants that," he continued. "The one other exception is also during menstruation also because it just kind of dehydrates you anyway, to begin with, and [to] fast on top of that would be detrimental, so those types of scenarios, there's no obligation."
If you’re unable to fast for whatever reason, Muslims are asked to remember those less fortunate and either make a donation or feed someone in need on each day you miss a fast as well as make up that day after Ramadan.
"If you're able to, feed someone less fortunate than yourself," Imam Muhammad said. "So this takes us really to the core meaning in the blessings that come with the month of Ramadan, is that the fasting in and of itself is to make us more mindful of those who are less fortunate than we are."
Do you get "Hangry" while fasting?
We all know that one person (or are that person) who if they are hungry, they’re easily frustrated or angry, thus the colloquial term: "Hangry."
"There are requirements about controlling your anger [while fasting,]" Dr. Gokal said. "And you know if you think about it, if you've ever been ‘hangry,’ before, you know how easy it is to just get all ticked off about anything. And that's those are some of the things you're supposed to control."
"I'm reminded of the Snickers commercial when someone is ‘hangry’ you know? ‘You're not yourself when you're hungry,’ but the amazing thing about fasting during the month of Ramadan is that the Muslim is even more maneuverable," Imam Muhammad added. "He [or she] is even more kind, more compassionate, more gracious, you know which seems to go against nature itself."
How do I greet Muslims during Ramadan?
Ramadan can be a very unifying time for Muslims, as strangers become familial by faith as they congregate at the mosque for evening prayers and to break their fasts. Those who aren’t Muslim are more than welcome to say, "Happy Ramadan" or "Ramadan Mubarak."
"It means ‘Blessed Ramadan,’ and you can respond by saying ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ right back some say ‘Ramadan Kareem,’" Imam Muhammad explained. "It is just a way that we greet each other, and we still say Assalam Alaykum (peace be upon you) also during the month of Ramadan, but it is just to remind each other."
Can I fast even if I’m not Muslim?
If you have a Muslim friend who is fasting, you’re certainly more than welcome to join them. And while the challenge of abstaining from food and water might cause some apprehension, the spiritual aspect should be the main concern.
"There's two aspects…one is the food and that, you know, withholding and that part…but Part B is the self-control part of it on everything else, right being able to do the right thing and not getting angry at anybody because you're just depleted of calories or whatever," Dr. Gokal added. "Those things are hard to do, but once you do it, it is incredibly, incredibly rewarding at the end, so if anyone wants to try it out, you know, get a buddy, who's already doing it and kind of go through the process for a day and see what it feels like, and you might be surprised."
Other etiquette for non-Muslim friends
If you are not Muslim but have friends who practice, it’s completely understandable to want to show support. However, it’s just as important to be considerate and not overthink your approach.
For one, it’s completely OK for non-Muslims to eat among their friends or coworkers if they’re fasting.
Context, in this case, is very important. As long as you’re not addressing the elephant in the room, i.e., asking someone why they aren’t eating or, why they are not fasting. Still, there’s no reason to necessarily treat your Muslim friends and colleagues any differently.
"The world doesn't stop because the Muslim is fasting," Imam Muhammad concluded. "And here's another beautiful aspect of this when it comes to the animal kingdom, and this includes human beings lack of food and lack of water can drive an animal man it can drive an animal insane but the Muslim with the same hunger and the same thirst walks around as if he's in paradise as if he or she is in paradise, you know, and that is a miracle in itself."