Getting to Know Ramadan

Don’t know much about Ramadan? Well, join the club, but I became more interested in Islam’s holiest month after reading this award-winning essay from ONE Magazine, which is put out by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

On the surface, Ramadan resembles Christian Lent. It differs, however, in several fundamental ways.

Perhaps the most apparent difference is that after breaking the fast at nightfall, Muslims celebrate and often feast. During the first weeks of the month, there are especially festive dinners with the last dinner of the night being the suhur, which is to be eaten as close to dawn as possible. Losing weight is not generally connected with Ramadan in the Muslim mind.

More important, unlike Lent, Ramadan is not generally understood as an act of penance. Muslims rather consider Ramadan as an exercise in self–discipline, as purification and as a reminder of the believer’s dependence on the bounty of God.

As does fasting in Christianity, Judaism and Indic religions, the fast in Islam helps the believer focus on what is important. Fasting is closely connected to prayer and contemplation. It is the setting aside of the ordinary that allows the believer to focus on the transcendent.

One of the more striking aspects of Ramadan, particularly to Christians and Jews, is the joy with which Muslims anticipate and observe the month. Whereas Lent is a time of quiet, penitential reflection for Christians and Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement) is a solemn day for Jews, Ramadan is a time of spiritual and physical refreshment for Muslims. It is a time to put aside the burdens and cares of everyday life and to focus on what really matters. Whereas Christians created Fat Tuesday as the last celebration before Lent, Muslims see no need to “get it all in” before Ramadan. Ramadan is a celebration.

To be sure however, Ramadan is not only celebration. Muslims challenge themselves to live all their spiritual obligations with particular intensity and devotion during the month. They must not only fast, but pray, read the Quran and demonstrate just behavior, honesty, kindness and faithfulness to their word. Harsh or vulgar speech and arguments are frowned upon during the month. Violence of any sort is seen as a serious violation of Ramadan.

This really is a great piece; if you’re only going to read one piece on Ramadan, let it be this one. If you ever get a chance to see the print issue, the images are stunning.

The joyfulness of the fast is what is striking to me, and that it runs from sunrise to sunset, every day for a month. Our Catholic fasting is not so very challenging in the face of that. Meatless Friday? Fasting/abstinence only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Hey, some years that’s pretty challenging for me, I admit it, but the challenge is good for us. One Lent I followed the Orthodox rules for the fast of Great Lent. That was pretty challenging, too — it was basically like being a Vegan, and I was happy to get back to yogurt, eggs etc (I never knew how much I loved dairy until I couldn’t have it) but I kind of loved it, too, the self-denial and sacrifice.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in learning more about what Ramadan is, and is not, you can head over to the Muslim Channel here at Patheos.

I was very taken by this piece by Dilshad Ali. A working mother with a severely autistic child, Dilshad writes affectingly of her family’s life being “what it is” and how the prayers and fasting of Ramadan infuse her with hope.

This is a good quick “overview” of Catholic “dialogue with Islam since the Second Vatican Council:

YouTube Preview Image

Deacon Greg notes that Ramadan is not Lent.

More from CNS: What Catholics can Learn from Islam’s Holy Month

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • dry valleys

    Dave Shameron wished us “Ramadan Mubarak” this year, which was nice of him I suppose.

    I visit Indian restaurants that are owned and staffed by Muslims. They continue serving food throughout their own fasts, and I thought it was remarkable the extent of self-sacrifice this would call for, especially because so many of them obviously enjoyed eating a bit too much!

    Personally I don’t think it has as much to offer the outside world as Lent, which can profitably be observed by those who don’t share the theology for health and self-discipline reasons. In fact I don’t think Islam does any good for anyone, least of all Muslims themselves. And somehow it seems typical that, having fasted by day, they gorge themselves at night.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Yes, Orthodox Lent is very challenging.

    Also, when it starts, you’re in it for duration—you don’t get to feast at night; it’s 24/7. The Lentern fast doesn’t end until after the big Easter service; the Christmas fast ends after the Christmas Eve service. (In America, Orthodox Christians are allowed to eat a Thanksgiving feast; local homeless shelters near to American churches often get big donations of turkey soup adn turkey sandwiches the day after Thanksgiving.)

    The aim is also to pray more, and to “Fast from sin”, not just food.

    However, the Orthodox church makes allowances for age, health, the need to take medicine, and, most importantly—the fast is between you and God. If you see a fellow Orthodox church member apparently breaking the fast—well, you just forget you saw it. You’re forbidden to upbraid them about it, and you’re forbidden to try and impose the fast on others, or to make a fuss about it in public.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    During this Ramadan, it might not be a bad idea for Christians to fast, and pray, for their persecuted fellow believers in the Middle-East, and around the world.

  • 1

    I have absolutely no desire to know anything more about Ramadan. In view of the slaughter against Christians I see going on in Africa and the Middle East, I admit that my desire to sing Kumbaya with Muslims is at an all-time low. I have read the Quran and know its evil message. That is enough.