By Wasan Abu Baker
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It is a period of prayer, fasting, charity giving and self–accountability for Muslims around the world. The first verses of the Quran were revealed to the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) during the last third of the month of Ramadan, making this an especially holy period during the month. Ramadan is also a month of community and socializing, as Muslims gather in the evenings to share in fast-breaking meals called Iftar.
Ramadan is the month of fasting for Muslims in the United States. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.
People of Islamic faith are encouraged to read the entire Quran during Ramadan. Some Muslims recite the entire Quran by the end of Ramadan through special prayers known as Tarawih, which are held in mosques every night of the month, during which a section of the Quran is recited each night by the Imam (the one who leads the prayer) who typically is a religious scholar who has memorized the entire Quran.
Ramadan is also a month for acts of charity. Many Islamic centers and mosques actively take part in charity events and activities, such as giving basic necessities of food and clothing to the homeless or donating school supplies to schools. Some centers invite their non-Muslim neighbors and friends to the Iftar.
Islamic centers invite local or global speakers for special events and lecture. Centers also have strategies to engage the community through art contests, daily Iftars and fundraising events. Some schools might hold special events to welcome Ramadan. Some school authorities might issue requests on or prior to Ramadan, asking staff members at all schools within a district to help Muslim students perform their fasting ritual.
Many Islamic businesses and organizations change opening hours to suit prayer times during Ramadan. There might also be some congestion around mosques during prayer times, such as in the evenings.
The term Ramadan is derived from an Arabic word for intense heat; it is considered the most holy and blessed month. Ramadan traditionally begins with a new moon sighting, marking the start of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar.
Muslims (except children, the sick and the elderly) abstain from food, drink and certain other activities during the daylight hours in Ramadan. The month of Ramadan ends when the first crescent of the new moon is sighted again, marking the new lunar month’s start. Eid Al-Fitr is the Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
Observing the Start of Ramadan
Moon sightings (by the naked eye) might cause a variation of the date for Islamic holidays, which begin at sundown the day before the date specified for the holiday, such is the case with the start and end of Ramadan.
Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar containing 29 or 30 days per month, each year Ramadan moves back several days making it fall earlier and earlier on the Gregorian calendar, which contains 30 or 31 days per month. Early in the morning, one hour before dawn, my family wakes up to eat a meal called Suhour, which is one of only two meals allowed during Ramadan. For Suhour, we always eat light foods making it easier to go back to sleep again.
In Muslim-majority countries, everyone observes Ramadan so things are different. Stores and businesses are usually closed during the day, and work and school days are shortened. Back home, in Palestine, I could leave school or work early and go back home to sleep during the day, but here I can’t do that.
Ramadan for Kids
Young children below the age of accountability (which occurs at the time of puberty) are encouraged to fast, but the faith does not mandate that parents force their children to do so. After puberty is the time that the obligations of the faith become a responsibility. Young children want to do what adults do and they know that mom and dad are fasting, so they want to participate in the fast and be a part of something that the adults do. During this holy month, children learn to embrace other tenets of Islam, such as giving to the poor.
Young adults required to fast must learn that the obligations of faith come before other activities such as football or track. I feel proud when I see my children partaking in Ramadan themselves.
I believe schools should help kids fast during Ramadan. I am not suggesting that we give a full month off, but some modifications are needed to assist these students during this challenging time. There are approximately 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S. and it would be wonderful if we thought of ways to make it easier for those students here in public schools who fast during Ramadan.
One thing schools can do to accommodate these students is to offer an alternative during lunchtime. Most children who are fasting are forced to go to the lunchroom even though they can’t eat and are surrounded by the temptations of food. Perhaps a designated room such as the library or auditorium can be blocked off during Ramadan to make this time easier for the kids. All schools should provide a place where children can be away from food at midday. The students experience fatigue and low energy and would benefit from a place to relax and recharge for their full schedules.
In addition, many important exams are given during Ramadan. Muslim children should be offered an option to take them at an earlier date or complete them online after sunset. The tests could also be moved to the morning, when children have recently eaten Suhour and are less hungry. It is unfair that children who have worked hard all year must adhere to the same rigorous schedule of examinations when they are exhausted and unable to concentrate on the subject matter.
Some community leaders see more emphasis on American Muslim youth fasting as a way to boost the identity of a small religious minority. In recent years, there has been an appearance of kid-friendly Ramadan commercial goods such as streamers and party bags. Some mosques have started having small celebrations for kids doing their first fast and giving out certificates. Some Muslim newspapers have begun printing the photos of children who fast to honor them. It would be wonderful if the public schools saw this effort and helped the parents reinforce it.
I am not alone in my quest to raise my kids as good Muslims and my desire to make our Holy Days special for them. Many mothers and fathers struggle with the same questions. Many parents are searching for ways to make them feel good about themselves and their religion, while emphasizing they are a part of this society as well and must take a harmonious and constructive role in it instead of isolating themselves.
Families are trying to establish their “new traditions” in these celebrations. During Ramadan and Eid Days, from hanging balloons and lights around the house to making special meals, taking the day off and participating in the Eid prayer to taking trips to visit friends and amusement parks, giving small gifts to kids to doing something charitable for the needy Muslims, many of us are trying to find ways to mark these days as special and fun for our young ones in an environment that few participate.
During my 15 years living in the U.S., I have come to appreciate the efforts of caring and hardworking Muslim men and women, as well as the many books, video and audio tapes and Internet sites that help Muslim families raise their kids in this environment. Informative books and video tapes on Islam and Muslims have started to find their way into public libraries.
Some parents and other volunteers have begun to take the time to show up in their children’s classes and give presentations on Islam and our festivities. Activist groups have begun campaigns for the inclusion of Muslim Holy Days on radio and TV stations as well as print media. Some have even convinced a few colleges to recognize these days as vacation days. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) has published a book giving practical tips on how to raise our children in North America.
Mosques, Islamic centers, Islamic schools, Islamic summer camps and programs for adults, youth, and kids, in addition to providing spiritual knowledge and being a sanctuary to every Muslim, offer great opportunities in bringing together little ones and making them feel that they are not alone.
As Muslim children growing up in North America, they have a lot more things in common than their parents, not only in religion, but also in culture. They will be the leaders and members of the next generation of Muslims in North America in the new century. Giving a chance for them to get to know our religion and love one another may help them join as a single group in the future in this diverse society and maintain our way of life and identity.
There are so many things we can do: We can donate informative books and tapes giving lectures and presentations on Islam to our neighborhood schools and libraries. We can be informed advocates on issues relating to Islam in any forum from home to workplace, from playground to schools, from universities to libraries.
By being visible and honest citizens in our communities, we can help create and distribute positive messages about Islam and Muslims. Some of us can write children’s books, or songs for our children to share with their classmates; others can create Web sites. We can participate even by bringing sweets to a class or workplace on our Holy Days.
Ramadan and I
As a teacher at Sunday school, a community member and a mother, I find different ways to make the most of Ramadan while trying to do as many good deeds as possible with my children. Getting ready for the month of Ramadan takes effort and time. We like to decorate the house together with lanterns and other crafts.
We let the school know about the Ramadan practices, and we bake special cookies for the teachers and staff. Also, letting your neighbors, colleagues, friends know about this special month is important to help build bridges and relationships with other faiths.
My family receives many invitations for Iftar dinners during this month, and because the Muslim community is diverse, that means our Pakistani community will cook their traditional cuisines during this special month, whereas our Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Egyptian and other communities break their Iftar in a special way, and the Arab community cooks special dishes.
The month of Ramadan is a great opportunity to be together. Muslims who are homesick can feel welcome during this month. It’s the month that we are taking each opportunity to help others, open our houses for people, showing others that we care and we love them. We encourage the kids to do more good deeds, read the Quran and pray Tarawih at the Mosque.
The End of Ramadan
At the end of the month, we celebrate Eid al-Fitr, together; this is how we finish the month of Ramadan. Muslim employees and students might be absent especially on Laylat Al Qadr, also known as the Night of Power or the Night of Destiny; it takes place on one of the last 10 days of Ramadan. It is one of the most sacred nights in the Islamic calendar year.
Laylat Al Qadr is identified as the night when Allah first revealed the Quran to the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as many Muslims believe that this day holds more power in prayer than a thousand months of prayer. Some spend the whole day in prayer and reading the Quran. Many Muslims spend the last 10 days of Ramadan focused on prayer.
Celebrating the End of Ramadan
Muslims around the world celebrate Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan with a three-day feast beginning at sunset on the last day of the long fasting period. Eid Al-Fitr is an important Islamic holiday that involves many Muslims waking up early and praying either at an outdoor prayer ground or a Mosque.
Many Muslims dress in their finest clothes and decorate their houses with lights and ornaments. Mistakes are forgiven, and money is given to the poor. Special food is prepared, and friends and relatives are invited to share the feast. Gifts and greeting cards are exchanged and children receive presents.
In recent years, New York city public schools announced that two Muslim holidays will be observed: Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. This is wonderful news because Muslims are a part of this country and it only makes sense to recognize this holiday just like Christian and Jewish holidays are recognized. I hope that other school districts and states will follow.
Preparing for Ramadan in USA
Local mosques and Islamic organizations are preparing for the holiest month of the year. Muslims in the U.S. are organizing several Iftar dinners, events, activities and fundraisers to bring people together.
The Muslim community in the U.S. is coordinating to welcome the Muslim families during Ramadan. Before the start of Ramadan, workshops will be held to help Muslims get ready. Workshops are also held to help the community deal with the long daylight hours¾up to 18 hours with no food or water.
Wasan Abu Baker is an American Muslim activist of Palestinian origin. A writer, blogger, educator, translator and book reviewer, she writes about Palestine, Islamophobia and education. She is a a staff writer at Kings River Life magazine and vice chair for National Justice for Our Neighbors in Corpus Christi, Texas.