A guide to Ramadan for the curious

This week Muslims around the world have welcomed the holy month of Ramadan. Following the lunar Islamic calendar, Ramadan, the ninth month of the year, is a period of spiritual revival. 

While the best known feature about Ramadan may be that Muslims do not eat, drink or have sex from dusk till dawn, Ramadan is about much more than just controlling your base desires. 

For many Muslims, each Ramadan represents a different step in a journey of gaining closeness to God. This can be achieved in many different ways and each person has a different path. 

But let’s start at the beginning. 

Why do we say the month is about much more than abstaining from food and drink? 

Well, due to mental and physical ill-health many Muslims cannot fast during the month. People who have mental ill-health, disordered eating and conditions like diabetes or are menstruating cannot fast.

For them fasting can cause more harm than good.That doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to observe the month. Instead this serves to show how the month is about more than physical abstinence. It’s about spirituality, gaining closeness to God and personal growth. 

Read more: Ramadan During A COVID-19 Pandemic

So what’s the point of fasting?

The word “fast” in Arabic is “sawm” which actually finds its origins in a word that means “self-restraint”. Therefore fasting is actually about practising mastery over the self. It’s about the ego, the soul and something which is called the nafs – which translates to the self. Fasting is meant to help with this but is by no means the only way. 

Muslims believe that by fasting and abstaining from something allowed in Islam – this will allow us to take greater stock of our lives and what is missing in our relationship with God. While we’re not trying to be creeping Sharia out here, we think there might be some lessons from this month that would benefit everyone regardless of religion or faith. 

Read more: What We Learned About Social Justice In Ramadan 

Oh and in case you’re a little confused, creeping Sharia is this fear from Islamophobes that Muslims are preparing to inject Islamic laws into “normal life”. It also stems from the fact that many people don’t really understand Islam and Muslims. It’s been appropriated by Muslims to poke fun at this idea. It’s kind of what this piece is about as well. 

A quick interjection  –– Ramadan is not about feeling the suffering of the poor

Muslims are however encouraged to spend more money in charity and give their money and time towards the needy. Again this is pretty simple. We all know how the pandemic has affected many people and left them without jobs or any income. If you’re someone who still has your job and income, it’s important to pay it forward. It doesn’t have to be thousands of rands but even buying a meal or some groceries are sure to be a help. 

So how can I join in even if I’m not Muslim? 

The month is about restraint. It’s about trying to understand those bad habits we all cultivate throughout the months and try to unlearn them. These habits could be anything from taking a social media break to trying to stop eating certain foods or even stepping back from people who might not be healthy for you. The restraint is the internal and the external. So it could even mean unlearning racist, sexist and other problematic ideas with the goal of becoming a better person and creating a better society. It works on all levels from individual to societal to structural. 

Above all, be kind

Ramadan is about being kinder and more patient with ourselves and each other. That seems pretty simple right? We live in a time where we all need a little bit of kindness. These are difficult times and it’s good to take that moment to be soft with yourself. Don’t get angry at yourself or others if you can’t meet those deadlines, or aren’t ticking off all those goals you set for yourself. Realise that things will happen when they’re supposed to and nothing can change that.

It’s the same for Muslims in Ramadan. Many set out lofty goals they want to achieve during the month and feel dispirited when they don’t manage to hit those goals. That’s why we’re encouraged to manage our goals and set them realistically. Try to better yourself but don’t get discouraged if you can’t meet all your own expectations.  So whether you’re observing the month or just interested in learning more about it, let’s all remember to be kind – to yourself and others. 

Read more: Food For Thought: How To Feed Your Soul This Ramadan