Ramadan Mubarak! For our Muslim friends and neighbors around the world, April 23 through May 23 is the holy month of Ramadan. Serving on the board of directors for the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metro Detroit and in my capacity as public affairs director for the Church in my stake, I have had some incredible opportunities to explore the rich religious landscape of my diverse community. One of my favorite experiences has been celebrating Ramadan with my wonderful Muslim friends and neighbors.
Before I got involved in interfaith work, the only thing I knew about Ramadan was that it involved fasting—for a really, really long time. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am no stranger to fasting. During our designated fast Sunday at the start of each month, we go without food or drink for two consecutive meals, or approximately 24 hours. But a month! How do you fast for an entire month?
Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days, depending on when the new moon is seen based on the Islamic calendar. Before sunrise each day, a pre-fast meal called the Suhoor is eaten to provide energy for the day. The morning prayer (Fajr) marks the beginning of their fast, which lasts until the sun sets. Once the evening prayer (Maghrib) has been observed, it is time to refuel physically and emotionally for the next day of fasting and devotion. Family and friends often gather for the evening meal (Iftar) which is a time of unity and celebration during this season of spiritual reflection and increased worship to God.
One of my favorite interfaith experiences has been joining my Muslim brothers and sisters for an Iftar during the month of Ramadan. Not only is the food absolutely amazing (seriously the best!) but the spirit of love and community consecrated by the fast of faithful believers is truly touching. I would highly encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend a community Iftar.
So why do Muslims observe Ramadan?
For followers of Islam, fasting isn’t just a good thing to do—it’s a requirement, or pillar of faith. You may have heard of the Five Pillars of Islam. Fasting (Sawm) was taught by the prophet Muhammad as a way to increase devotion to God.
“O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous” (Quran 2:183)
The practice of fasting is common to many religions and acts as a way to elevate the self or the soul above physical wants and needs to access a higher level of spirituality. Jewish men and women fast at Yom Kippur, Buddhist fast on Vesak, and many Christians fast as part of Lent and the Holy Weeks. Muslims fast specifically during the holy month of Ramadan to commemorate the month in which the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims also fast at other times throughout the year to ask for forgiveness of sins.
What can we learn from Ramadan?
One of the most inspiring aspects of witnessing my Muslim friends’ observance of Ramadan is their cheerful obedience. I have asked them if it is hard to fast while working or going about their daily activities while others may give little or no thought to their religious practice. But they always respond with a smile that it is a blessing to fast. I have never heard them complain about the long, hot days when Ramadan falls in the summer due to the lunar calendar.
As we have held interfaith meetings in past years during the fast, there is no grumbling or complaint when others enjoy a snack or a meal. When asked if it is hard to fast for 30 consecutive days, I am met with responses of nothing but gratitude, giving me an increased devotion for the season and how I can learn lessons from it in my own life.
As a young person growing up, the approach of Fast Sunday often solicited dread as I contemplated the hours of stomach pains surely ahead. Even on a Sunday surrounded by fellow participants in the fast, when a younger sibling enjoyed a bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal, I would lament the unfairness of my plight. Now as an adult, I am ashamed to admit how often I note the approach of the first Sunday of the month as I would an upcoming visit to the dentist—necessary, but not desired.
Now imagine a blend of fast Sunday and the Christmas season! Think about what it would be like with all the sights, smells, traditions, and memories of that special time connected with the increased spiritual devotion from fasting. What if the night before fast Sunday felt like Christmas Eve? Wouldn’t that be the coolest?
What I have learned from Ramadan is how to celebrate the fast! I have discovered how to be more intentional about my devotion and how to be grateful for the sacrifice fasting requires. Here are some elements of Ramadan that my family and I have incorporated into our fast Sundays to make them more meaningful—I hope they will be useful for your own fasting observance, too.
Create fun and memorable traditions.
Make it a day to celebrate and look forward to each month!
Have a special meal at a designated time to break your fast. Use special plates. Make a favorite or meaningful meal. Wait until sundown and eat by candlelight. Create a tradition around the meal.
Gather with family and friends to break the fast. Treat it like a birthday or special occasion, one to be shared!
Start your fast with increased intention.
Central to the Islamic practice of fasting is the concept of intention. Muslims offer special prayers (Dua) to state their intention before fasting.
According to the Qu’ran, “He who does not make the intention for fasting before dawn, there is no fast for him.”
In October 2004 general conference, Elder Carl B. Pratt of the First Quorum of the Seventy spoke about the importance of Church members fasting with real intent.
“If we have a special purpose in our fasting, the fast will have much more meaning,” he said. “Perhaps we can take time as a family before beginning our fast to talk about what we hope to accomplish by this fast. This could be done in a family home evening the week before fast Sunday or in a brief family meeting at the time of family prayer. When we fast with purpose, we have something to focus our attention on besides our hunger.”
Make it about more than just food.
When Muslims observe Ramadan, they don’t just refrain from food or drink. They also refer to it as a fast from all wrongdoing. As Latter-day Saints, we can also pray for greater charity and patience to become our best selves while fasting rather than giving into the “hangry” feelings. Additionally, it should be noted that all Muslims who are unable to fast for medical or other reasons can find spiritual ways to make the day meaningful for them.
Increase prayer and worship.
One thing my Muslim friends have mentioned they like about Ramadan is how much more time they devote to study and prayer. Although their worship looks different this year due to the coronavirus, typically mosques become a hive of activity with special devotional studies, lectures, and extra prayers. Most people also commit to reading the Qu’ran more intensely, with some reading the book in its entirety during the month.
Sometimes, fast Sundays can feel like they’re more about survival than study. Dedicating extra time to prayer and scripture study during fasting can enhance your experience. In October 1974 general conference, President Ezra Taft Benson admonished, “To make a fast most fruitful, it should be coupled with prayer and meditation; physical work should be held to a minimum, and it’s a blessing if one can ponder on the scriptures and the reason for the fast”
Find joy in giving.
Another key element of Ramadan is charitable giving (Zakat), which is another one of the Five Pillars of Islam. During the month, Muslims make charitable donations and find ways to serve and bless their community. This is similar to fast offerings made by members of the Church. But could we make this an even more significant part of our devotion? Besides giving a donation, can we reach out and bless our families and communities while we fast?
I am excited to take the lessons I have learned from my Muslim friends and from the practices of the nearly 1.8 billion members of the Islamic faith and apply them to my own. There is truly so much we can learn from one another, and I am grateful to the faithful men and women of all religions who inspire me with how they live their devotion.