Ramadan Kareem: Engaging in the Month of Fasting as a Non-Muslim

Ramadan Kareem! “Have a generous Ramadan!”

Ramadan is one of my favorite months of the year. Husband and I moved to the Middle East one month after getting married (about 10 years ago), and we landed smack-dab in the middle of Ramadan. It was a fascinating and massive learning curve for me. At first, I only felt the tangible and obvious ways it interfered with my daily norms and routines. Like, it’s illegal to drink water or eat food in public for the entire month. Yes, even for an American.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

But as I began Arabic lessons and started to connect with my first handful of Muslim friends, I had an opportunity to look beyond myself and learn about all the fun and devotion and beauty the month of Ramadan is to Muslim families. The following two years, Husband and I lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. We chose to fully participate in the Ramadan fast, and we enjoyed Iftar meals with our neighbors every single night during those months. Oh the joy and fun and laughter and connectedness and sense of community we experienced! I have not felt anything like it at any other point in my life. I get teary eyed thinking about it; memories I will cherish as long as I live.

People around the world are different from us. People living within our own country, city, neighborhood. We cannot change this, and no one is immune. And actually, it’s been true throughout most of history. However, with today’s technology and social media, the average person is able to access and encounter different cultures, religions, and world-views to an exponential degree. We live in a very connected world. So why do we act so disconnected? So divided? So angry?

Another post for another time.

For the sake of this post, I’ll say that most of what we know about other people in other countries with different belief systems comes from headlines. Or short, opinionated snippets from some source not in favor of or not positively representing that specific group or belief. And if what you know about Arabs or Muslims or the religion of Islam is primarily from headlines (even legit, trusted news sources), it’s likely you’ve only been exposed to a limited and extreme understanding of Islam.

Headlines rarely make friends.

Not all of us have the opportunity to hop a plane for a month-long delve into a new culture and experience a mind-blowing, perspective-shifting, worldview revolution. (Although if you ever do get that chance, please do it.) You can still choose to intentionally learn and discover and connect to those who are different from you. And, as today is the first day of the month of Ramadan, what better time to learn something new about Islam? I’d love to give you three short-ish—and hopefully insightful—lists.

Lists are my favorite.

The first is about Muslims and Islam (this is relevant because Muslims are the people participating in the month of Ramadan). Every time I visit the States, I get the same questions about Arabs and Muslims and Islam over, and over, and over again. So this will be the most boiled-down, over-simplified list you could probably find on the subject. It is not meant to insult your intelligence or to put Muslims in a 6-bullet-pointed box. The hope is to quickly debunk a few common misunderstandings, and possibly give you a new piece of information so you can have a more informed view or ask better questions. The second list is about Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting. The third list is about how you can bring a piece of Ramadan into your home this month—no matter where you live or what you believe—and choose to practice celebrating people and places and traditions different than your own.

6 Things Every person in the world should know about Islam:
(But seriously; I’m talking to you, America.)

  1. “Islam” is the name of the religion. “Muslim” refers to the people who follow the religion of Islam. Example: “Ali is a Muslim. He is a member of the Islamic faith.” “Carol is a Muslim. She would love to answer any questions you have about Islam.”
  2. The Qur’an is the holy book of Islam. Although available in almost every language in the world, it was originally written in Arabic, and is only considered to be completely perfect and the word of God in its original, Arabic form. This is why, if you visit any mosque in the world, the Qur’an will be read in Arabic, rather than the local language.
  3. “Allah” is the Arabic word for “God.” Anyone speaking in Arabic and talking about any Abrahamic God (Jews, Christians, or Muslims) call “God,” “Allah.” Like in Spanish, the word for “God” is “Dios,” or in German “God” is “Gott.”
  4. Muslims do not worship the moon or believe in any moon gods. The crescent moon seen atop mosques or on various country flags represents the lunar calendar, denoting stages of time. As directed by the Qur’an, the moon and the lunar calendar determine what time a day Muslims pray, and when events like Ramadan or Eid holidays take place.
  5. In Islam, Muhammad is the “messenger of God” and is considered the final prophet to come. He is believed to have received the revelation of the Qur’an, and to have restored the faith of Islam. Muslims do not “believe in Muhammad” in the way Christians “believe in Jesus.” He is seen as a major prophet and the receiver of their holy book.
  6. Islam is a monotheistic faith (one God, “Allah,” who is the God of Abraham), and Muslims do not hate Jesus. In fact, they revere him. The four major prophets of Islam are Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.

As I said, this is a very limited list. It is is no way a class or tutorial or book on the faith of Islam. Nor is it the same list a Muslim would give you if he or she wanted to share the most important aspects of his or her faith with you. However, it addresses the most common questions I get from friends and family in the West. There is so much more to be said about Muslims and Islam. I would encourage anyone to read books, take a class, or ask their Muslim friend for a more fleshed-out understanding. But that is not the ultimate goal of this post.

So what is Ramadan, anyways?

  1. Ramadan is the holy month of fasting engaged in every year by adult Muslims all over the world.
  2. During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink anything from dawn until dusk. No water, no coffee, no cigarettes, no chocolate cake. Official times for daily fasting change every year since the dates of Ramadan change yearly, according to the Islamic and lunar calendars.
  3. At sunset, Muslims gather together to break the fast. This meal is called “Iftar.” Muslims are allowed to eat and drink from that time until dawn, when they begin the daily fast again.
  4. Ramadan lasts about one month.
  5. Ramadan is one of the five tenants of the Islamic faith, and is an obligatory practice of devotion. It is also a time of deep connection within the community, and full of fun, precious, family traditions.

Our family is big on broadening our worldview, learning about new and different peoples, cultures, and religions, and finding ways to accept, connect, and love people who hold different faiths and traditions than our own. One fun way to do this is during a time of festivity, holiday, or celebration. And now is such a time! Ramadan is a perfect opportunity to introduce (or to further) understanding about Muslims around the world. And I’d like to give you a few ideas how you might do this.

Ways to honor and engage in Ramadan as a non-Muslim:

  1. Have a conversation. This could go so many ways, and I encourage you to do it in various contexts and settings. We love having animated, excited talks with our kids (they’re all still very small, hence the enthusiasm) about how different families around the globe celebrate life and living. How different people think, exist, and express their love for God. Our goal is to make sure our kids leave the discussion knowing that “being different” can be really beautiful, and our job as citizens of this world is to look for that beauty in others and engage in friendship, kindness, and acceptance. If your kids are adults, change it up, but keep the convo going. If you don’t have kids, do this with your friends.
  2. Purchase and read a book or two about Ramadan (or Islam). There are many fun children’s books about the holy month of fasting. This a great way to introduce a new concept to kids and teach them about families around the world who have different traditions.
  3. Go meet a Muslim. It is sad to me that most white/Christian/Western Americans do not have any Muslim friends. But I was there once, too. In college, I drove to the local Islamic cultural center and met with a Sheik (which means “elder”). I was not looking to become a Muslim or to ask that man to become anything other than who he already was. I did not want to debate. I did not want to wave any flags or give any speeches. I simply wanted to know how to make friends who were different than me. My new Sheik friend, Yasser, then put me in contact with a few collage-aged Muslims in my area. They are still my friends to this day. And knowing them and having conversation with them was the starting point of my love for the Middle Eastern region. They were incredibly gracious to answer uneducated and, likely, very non-PC questions.
  4. Ask your new Muslim friend if you can join them for Iftar. Yes. Please. It’s not rude. In fact, your new friend will most likely be delighted you want to join them in a tradition and practice so central and precious to them. And if you have kids, ask if you can bring them, too. I know it’s not super Western American to invite yourself (and your ten kids) to someone’s house. But hospitality is rich and fervent and very much alive in Islam. I believe you will be beautifully surprised by the kindness and hospitality of the average Muslim.
  5. Host your own Iftar meal for your family and friends. If your kids are big, you could even fast for a day, or choose some thing to fast (food, breakfast, a favorite treat, etc.) in honor of the billions of Muslims fasting around the globe. Then hunker down at sunset, and enjoy a family feast. If you want to bring up the cultural heat, you could start by eating an odd number of dates. 1, 3, or 5 (watch out—sugar alert!). You could also research different Iftar meals from different countries and cultures around the globe. A Lebanese dish one night, an Indonesian meal the next. Muslims come from all over the globe; there are endless possibilities!

And so I leave you with “Ramadan Mubarak”—“may you have a blessed Ramadan.” May you reach outside of yourself this month and find the joy and beauty in someone who is different than you, and from a culture or faith other than your own.

Until next time, Ana

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