Ramadan is not only the beginning of a month-long fast but of a special spiritual cycle of months within which those who participate have the opportunity to draw closer to God, family and community.
No food, no drink, no smoking, and no sex -- from dawn to dusk for a whole month? For some in our secular, materialistic world such religious abstinence is extreme or even harmful, in our society grueling marathons and triathlons or 12-to-18-hour professional workdays are often lauded and justified with the mantra of "No pain, no gain" and rigorous dieting and exercise for beauty or health are multibillion-pound industries.
Ramadan, which is just beginning, is a special time set aside to reflect on human frailty and dependence on God to draw closer to God through physical and spiritual discipline: abstinence, devoting more time than usual to prayer, and performing good deeds.
It might seem curious in the context of fasting to speak of celebration and joy rather than suffering and endurance, but many Muslims look forward to Ramadan. Even many who are not particularly religiously observant in the rest of the year choose to observe this communal fast. It is a time for family and communal gathering, a time when many go "home" to share the experience.
At sunset each night, family, friends and neighbors come together to break their fast, traditionally the first thing eaten is a date. I can still remember vividly my first trip to Cairo when a former classmate, after dropping me off at my hotel, told me he would meet me for breakfast. I went out that night. When he did not show up for breakfast the next day, I called only to be told that he had come the night before to bring me to "breakfast," breaking his fast with his family!
Family, friends and neighbors then enjoy a festive meal (iftar) that includes desserts that are made especially in Ramadan and socialize late into the night. Many also go to a mosque to participate in the discipline of reciting the Koran, read in its entirety during this special month.
When my wife and I first travelled in the Muslim world in the early 1970s I was struck by a scroll or wall hanging that I purchased in Damascus, depicting the chapters of the entire Koran divided into 30 sections. I was surprised to learn that it reflected the Ramadan practice of reciting a different Koranic section each night. Koranic recitation (the word Koran means recitation) is meant to transform the person reciting -- just as it transformed Muhammad from a Meccan businessman to the Prophet of a major world faith. As the Koran says, "This Koran has been sent down by the Lord of the Worlds: The trusted Spirit brought it down upon your heart" (26: 194).
The month of Ramadan is also the time when Muslims fulfill another pillar of Islam, almsgiving (zakat), the pillar that, as the popular saying goes, gains Muslims entrance to heaven.
Social justice, a concern for the poor, orphans and widows, and family members is a major Koranic theme. The Koran specifically condemns those who say people are meant to be poor and should be left to their own fate because God wills it.
Like tithing in Christianity, Islam requires its followers to help less fortunate members of the community, but unlike tithing, which is based upon a percentage of one's income, zakat is a wealth tax, requiring one to give 2.5 per cent of all liquid assets each year. It is not viewed as voluntary or as charity. In Islam, the true owner of things is not man but God; zakat is a required sharing of the wealth that one has received as a trust from God.
But how does zakat play out practically? Many give their zakat to less fortunate family members or those in their community. Others, often those with considerable wealth, distribute their zakat more broadly for philanthropic projects like the building of mosques, libraries, clinics, locally and internationally, scholarships for students, assistance for medical care and social services.
Ramadan ends with one of the two major Islamic feasts (Eids), the Festival of Breaking the Fast, Eid al-Fitr. Relatives often come from far and wide to visit and celebrate together for several days or even weeks. The celebration resembles Christmas or Chanukah in its religious joyfulness, special celebrations and gift-giving.
For many Muslims, the religious experience and joy of Ramadan continues with the opportunity during the following month of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca. At least once, every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make to make this pilgrimage, becoming a pilgrim totally at God's service.
Just as Muslims are united five times each day as they face Mecca in worship, each year believers make the physical journey to this spiritual centre of Islam, where they again experience the unity, breadth and diversity of the Islamic community.
In the 21st century almost 2 million Muslims gather annually from every part of the globe in Saudi Arabia for the hajj. The pilgrimage ends with the celebration of the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha). The "great feast" commemorates God's testing of Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail (in the Jewish and Christian traditions it is Isaac who is put at risk) and final permission to Abraham to substitute a ram for his son.
By: Mr. John Esposito. Washington Post.