The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began Friday. Following terror attacks like the suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert Monday night, many Americans might fear this month — and terrorist attacks do tend to spike during it — but Ramadan has nothing to do with terror.
Here are five things to know about the Muslim holy month, including whether or not non-Muslims should celebrate it, and a Muslim’s response to the terror attacks that often come during this month.
1. One of five pillars.
The Islamic faith requires five key practices. Those are: reciting the declaration of faith, or shahada (“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”); praying five times a day toward Mecca, or salat; giving alms to the poor, or zakāt; the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, or hajj; and fasting during the month of Ramadan, or sawm.
Fasting during Ramadan is therefore one of the most important requirements of Islam. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, lasting either 29 or 30 days, depending on when the new crescent moon is visible.
The Arabic term connotes intense heat and might have referred to a hot summer month, but in the Islamic calendar the timing varies from year to year.
During this holy month, able-bodied Muslims are expected to abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations from dawn until sunset each day. Many practicing Muslims also perform additional prayers.
Muslims believe that it was in the final ten nights of Ramadan that the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.
2. What is it like to celebrate Ramadan?
“The fast of Ramadan is meant to be challenging and a struggle,” M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, told PJ Media in a statement Friday. “There is nothing more cleansing to the soul and more equalizing across humanity than the innately human feeling of thirst, hunger, and bodily need which a Muslim willfully withstands on a daily basis in order to demonstrate a humble belief in God, our creator.”
Jasser emphasized that fasting is not unique to Islam. “I believe that all of the major faith traditions have incorporated fasting into our disciplined test of faith because there is nothing more equalizing to humanity, rich or poor, literate or not, strong or weak than the innate need to sustain nutrition and hydration,” the devout Muslim explained. “It is the greatest equalizer.”
This practice reminds Muslims that they are human and require food and drink, unlike God. While other religions practice fasting, the type of fasting during Ramadan “is certainly a unique Muslim ‘technology’ of faith practice.”
While fasting is difficult, Jasser has found it very rewarding. “In the evenings, it’s exceedingly rewarding to also break fast with family, friends and fellow Muslims after a difficult fast.”
3. Ramadan is better in non-Muslim countries.
In describing his own experience, Jasser noted that he finds it more rewarding to celebrate Ramadan in a country like the United States. “I find it very rewarding to fast among so many others who are not fasting and may have no idea that I am fasting,” he told PJ Media. “Ramadan is a time of very personal spiritual renewal and atonement with God. The external challenges are what make it real and authentic.”
Muslim countries have ways of practicing Ramadan that actually water down the practice, the American Muslim argued. “Sanitizing the fast through a society that makes it into a collective social mandate is not genuine and I find personally to be ‘un-Islamic,'” he said.
“Most Muslim majority nations, especially in the petro gulf states, I believe defeat much of the entire spiritual purpose of Ramadan by shifting their work hours to the evenings and resting far too much during the daytime,” Jasser explained. This may be a more efficient way of technically following the rules while eating and drinking during waking hours, but it lacks the real spiritual discipline.
“I have always found my fast to be most genuine and real in a free society where I continue to work my 14-hour day despite my fast from food and drink,” the American Muslim said.
4. Muslims take inspiration from Jesus.
Jasser tied together the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — by mentioning the fasting traditions in all three and the historic inspiration for the Muslim fast. He even argued that Muslims draw inspiration from Jesus Christ, whom Islam does not consider the Son of God, but a central prophet nonetheless.
“I believe the Lentian and Yom Kippur fasts arise from the same spirit of demonstration of faith to the God of Abraham as He asks of all His believers,” Jasser told PJ Media.
“It is extraordinarily relevant that Jesus — who Muslims believe to not only be a Messenger of God but to have been given many miracles from God — chose to fast in order to demonstrate his conviction in beginning his ministry of God and for God,” the Muslim said.
Jasser added that “it is this example, as well as the example of the Yom Kippur fast and the fast of the Prophet Mohammad daily in Ramadan as he received the revelation of the Quran that I believe that Muslims emulate in our month of fasting.”
5. Why Christians should celebrate Ramadan.
Nabeel Qureshi, a Muslim who converted to Christianity, encouraged Christians to celebrate Ramadan with Muslims in 2014. He remembered “waking up early in the morning, before dawn, to pray and eat with my family,” and “gathering as a community after sunset to reconnect with one another and share life with each other.”
More than anything, Ramadan for him meant “the pursuit of God’s pleasure and restored relationships with loved ones.” Arguing that “Ramadan is the month of relationships,” Qureshi suggested the month is “an opportunity to love Muslims as Jesus love us.”
“That God would take on human flesh out of love for mankind is a message worth living and dying for. It is a truth we should share without compromise. The heart of the Gospel is relationship: so that we could be in restored relationship with God, He entered into our world at the cost of His humiliation,” the Christian convert explained.
Like Ramadan, the Gospel is all about relationships. So, just as Jesus “was willing to enter into our context so that God might be glorified, so also we can commune with Muslims during Ramadan so that Jesus might be glorified.” Powerfully, Qureshi asked, “What better opportunity is there to build bridges?”
Qureshi argued that Jesus expects Christians to fast, and cheerfully, citing Matthew 6:16-18. “Some might be hesitant, worrying that Muslims are too different; but was not Jesus different from the ‘sinners’ and tax collectors he ate with?” the Christian asked, citing Mark 2:15-16. The only truly serious concern is that Muslims might take this as an opportunity to convert Christians — but all it takes to avoid that is for the Christian to explain that he or she follows Jesus.
“Let us love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves while letting them see us love God with everything we are,” Qureshi wrote. “May we embody the Gospel during Ramadan, living God’s message of relationships during the month of relationships, for the Glory of Jesus.”
One last note about terrorism.
“Acts of militant Jihad are far more frequent in this month, sadly,” Jasser admitted in his remarks to PJ Media. He denounced “Islamists who believe their entire identity is not about a personal relationship with God but rather a collective political, national identity of an Islamic state with its attendant sharia” (Islamic law).
Jasser noted that many devout Muslims will read through the entire Quran during Ramadan. “For non-Islamists it brings to light all the self-reflection and personal piety we need to remember, but for jihadists, daily recitation of scripture brings to the forefront their Salafi-Jihadist and Wahhabi interpretations of those scriptures riling up the fervor of their militancy,” he explained.
Chillingly, the very same passages which encourage peaceful Muslims to grow closer to God in devotion inspire jihadists to lash out in violence. Similarly, the traditions of the life of the Prophet Mohammed (called hadith) inspire “most of us to repair the world, but for Salafi-Jihadists it means destroying the world.”
Jasser powerfully denounced radical Islamist terrorists, citing “ISIS propaganda” promising great rewards in heaven. “My prayers as a Muslim have always been that they get a very different message in hell as they find out they were actually agents of evil and the devil rather than good and God.”