Ramadan for a Novice
By Ginger Rutland for the Sacramento Bee
I attended my first iftar earlier this month.
Iftar is the breaking of the fast that takes place every night in the homes of observant Muslims during the month of Ramadan. Hosted by the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims, the iftar I attended was an interfaith event, intended to educate non-Muslims like me about the significance of Islam's holiest month.
Arden Fair Mall
I learned that Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, the month Mohammed was supposed to have first received divine revelations from the Archangel Gabriel that became the Holy Qur'an. For a full lunar cycle, from full moon to crescent, adult Muslims around the world refrain from food, drink and sexual relations from dawn to sunset.
The fasting or sawm - the word in Arabic literally means self-restraint - is meant to build discipline. As Imam Azeez, the spiritual leader of the SALAM center, explained it, when people deny themselves the simple permissible pleasures - food, drink, sex - it becomes easier to refrain from the impermissible - alcohol or drugs or criminal behavior. While attention focuses on food and drink, the faithful are also supposed to refrain from foul language, gossip, evil thoughts and even war during Ramadan.
Fasting is also a way to build understanding and empathy for those who are suffering. Those who cannot fast because of illness or because they are pregnant are required to feed the poor each day that they themselves fail to refrain from.
Finally, Ramadan, we were told, is about family. At the end of the day, after prayer, families and friends come together for iftars, to break the fast. By tradition, the first foods eaten are dates and milk. At the SALAM center that Saturday night, a sumptuous feast of spiced rice, lamb, fried dumplings and sweets followed, all served in a joyful holiday spirit.
It felt like Christmas. Our hosts regaled us with tales of Ramadan back home in Egypt, Syria and Pakistan. They told us the month is very much like Christmas, a time when mothers prepare their favorite dishes and families and friends visit. On the last day of Ramadan, gifts are exchanged. In fact, in many Muslim countries, Ramadan, like Christmas, has become the principal shopping season and that has some worried that, like Christmas, Ramadan will become tainted by commercialism.
But as I've watched the Muslims I know this Ramadan and in the past, it seems unlikely. The central ritual of Ramadan, the fast itself, prevents the Muslim holy season from drifting too far from its spiritual roots.
To deny oneself all food and drink for 12 hours - not even a sip of water is permitted - is very hard. To do that not just for a day or a week, but for a full month, represents a commitment to faith that is rare and precious and real. Certainly, it seems so to someone like me, who has a hard time walking past the candy vending machine at work, even after I've just had lunch. So, I left my first iftar impressed and deeply moved.