On April 12th the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began. Millions of Muslims around the world are now fasting, observing the religious holiday, and celebrating with friends and family. In this episode of Thinking in English, I want to answer some of the most common questions people have about Ramadan, and introduce you to some religious vocabulary!
To observe (v) – to obey a law, rule, or custom
People must observe the law
To fast (v) – to eat no food for a period of time
One day a week he fasts for health reasons
practicing (adj) – actively involved in a religion
He is a practicing Christian, and goes to church every week
Holy (adj) – related to a religion or a god
The Quran is the holy book of Islam
Sacred (adj) – considered to be holy and deserving respect, especially because of a connection with a god
This area is sacred to Buddhists
Pilgrimage (n) – a special journey made by a pilgrim
Muslims try to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life
Dawn (n) – the period in the day when light from the sun begins to appear in the sky
I wake up before dawn every morning
Crescent (n) – a curved shape, like the moon when it is less that half of a circle
The moon was a brightly shining crescent
On April 12th, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, and is likely to be observed by over one billion Muslims around the world. Even in a global pandemic, with lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing requirements common in many countries, most followers of Islam will still observe Ramadan in some form. Some of the listeners of this podcast will certainly be involved in this month’s celebrations. In that case, you probably know more about Ramadan than I do… so send me a message if I make a mistake or get something wrong. Some of you will have friends, colleagues, or neighbours celebrating and fasting, so it will be really useful to know a little more about the holy month. And maybe some of you don’t know any Muslim people, or anyone who observes Ramadan. But with over a billion people in almost every country in the world fasting, celebrating, and joining in with various festivities, I think it is interesting for everyone to learn about this important part of religion and culture.
Now, to be perfectly honest, I am not muslim. I don’t observe Ramadan, and I am certainly not an expert in this issue. But I do have friends who fast every year, and because of them I have gradually learned some information and traditions. When I was working as an language teacher in Japan, one of my colleagues (actually my only British colleague) was a practicing Muslim and therefore strictly observed Ramadan. I remember sitting in an Indian restaurant, which was the only restaurant that sold Halal meat in the city, waiting for the sun to set so we could eat together. I think it was his first time observing the holiday away from the UK, and the hot and humid weather of Japan as well as being away from his family made it quite difficult for him. The rest of my colleagues and I tried to support him, but we also had many questions and things we didn’t know. Like, what actually is Ramadan? Why do people fast? What are some traditions people follow? Is there anything non-Muslims should do or not do when we are around our Muslim friends during the month? So, if any of you ever find yourself in a similar situation, hopefully this episode will answer some of these questions and be of some use!
Let’s start with the basic question… What is Ramadan? I’m sure many of you have heard of this before, but how much do you really know? Ramadan is the holiest, and most sacred, month of the year in the Islamic calendar. Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that God told the Prophet Mohammed part of the Quran, Islam’s holy book. The Prophet is reported to have said that “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”
Throughout the entire month, followers of Islam fast everyday from sunrise to sunset. This means they don’t eat any food, or drink any liquids during daylight hours! The month is an opportunity for Muslims to think about their relationship with God and their religion, to pray more than usual, to study their holy texts, and to be more charitable and generous. However, it’s not just a serious religious holiday. It’s also a time of celebration where families and friends come together to eat, have fun, sometimes give presents, and spend time with their loved ones. Moreover, at the end of Ramadan there is a big holiday known in English as the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast!
I mentioned fasting a few times already in this episode. For many people, the only thing they know about Ramadan is fasting. But, how does fasting work? And why do Muslims fast during Ramadan? Well, fasting is one of the five basic duties of Islam. The duties are faith, prayer, charitable giving, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, and fasting during Ramadan. All Muslims are expected to fast every year – it is a fundamental part of their religion and religious beliefs. Of course, if you are too young, too old, ill, pregnant, or have some other special circumstances, you are not forced to fast. What is the purpose of fasting? In my research, and according to some friends of mine, there are a few different reasons. It reminds you of how weak the human body is and how much it depends on God to live; it allows you to experience how the poor and needy feel when they are hungry and thirsty; and it allows Muslims to focus on their relationship with God.
So now we know a few reasons why people fast, what does fasting actually involve? During Ramadan, Muslims don’t eat any food, drink any liquids, smoke cigarettes, or engage in sexual activity during daylight hours. You also can’t take medication or even chew gum. If you do any of these things, your day of fasting doesn’t count and you start again the next day.
What do Muslims do during a normal Ramadan day? They wake up early in the morning, before dawn, to eat their first meal of the day. As they can’t eat or drink anything after dawn, they will usually consume a lot before the sun rises. Muslims are supposed to continue their usual routines, like work or school, while they are fasting. My old colleague worked at a school from 8am until 5pm as usual during the month. Once the sun sets, most Muslims eat a small snack, then perform their evening prayers. After they have finished their days praying, they might eat a large meal with their family and friends.
One of the things that confuses many people is the timing of Ramadan. It actually changes every year. This year Ramadan began on April 12th, but I remember my friend fasting during the middle of summer a few years ago. Why do the dates change? Islam has a religious lunar calendar, based off of the moon, which is actually 11 days shorter the the standard calendar. This means that the first day of Ramadan moves backwards by about 11 days every year. When Ramadan is in the winter, the shorter days and the cold weather makes it easier to fast. When Ramadan is in the summer, the longer days and hot weather makes it more difficult to fast.
The exact start date of Ramadan each year can actually be confusing for Muslims as well! As the months of the islamic calendar start on the new moon, Ramadan must start on the new moon, right? Actually, no. This is wrong. Traditionally Muslims would wait until they could see the beginning of the crescent moon. Now there is a debate between different religious experts whether they should use scientific calculations about the moon, or wait until it is visible in the sky. So it can be really difficult for Muslims to know the exact date Ramadan starts. In fact, one of Google’s most searched terms every year is “Ramadan start date!”
You might know that there are two major Muslim groups; Sunni and Shia. Both fast during Ramadan, but there are a few differences. Apparently Sunnis usually finish fasting exactly at sunset, so when the sun is no longer visible but there is still some light in the sky, while some Shia muslims wait until there is no visible light at all. Shia muslims also have an additional holiday during the Ramadan month.
How can non-Muslims be respectful of their Muslim friends during Ramadan? If you live in a Muslim country, it can actually be a crime to eat or drink in public during daylight hours – so even if you’re not Muslim be careful if you live in an Islamic country! However, this is certainly not the case for most listeners of this podcast. My friend gave me a few tips on how to be respectful during ramadan, especially if you have friends observing the month. You could try to not eat or drink in front of them. And definitely remember to not offer food or a snack – sometimes people will accept things without thinking… which for a Muslim would mean having to fast for an extra day! And maybe you could learn a traditional greeting to wish your Muslim friends a happy Ramadan.
On April 12th, over a billion Muslims around the world began observing Ramadan. In this episode of Thinking in English, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce some of the traditions, history, and useful information about the Islamic Holy month. Are you observing Ramadan this year? Do you know someone who is fasting? Does your religion, culture, or country have any special religious holidays?