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Ramadan: It’s More Than Fasting

Friday marks the start of Ramadan. Many know Ramadan is a month of fasting but there is more to the month than that. Below, I will do two things: first, explain four key aspects to the month for observant Muslims and, second, share some things you can do to be considerate to the Muslims around you.

Muslims make up close to 4% of the Canadian population and approximately double that number in some large cities so it is really valuable for everyone to have a greater understanding of this month.

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What is Ramadan?

Muslims mark Ramadan as the month when the prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of what would become the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. This event is what makes the month sacred. The Muslim lunar calendar has 354 days so Ramadan moves eleven days ahead on the Western calendar each year – it’s in April this year but will start in mid-March next year, and so on. For many Muslims, Ramadan has at least four key components:

1. Fasting – For 29 or 30 days (it depends on a moon sighting), Muslims who fast will abstain from all food and water and sexual activity during daylight hours. In our northern location, Ramadan is relatively easy when it falls near December but much more difficult when it occurs in July. If folks know anything about Ramadan, this is the piece many of us are aware of. Traditionally, Muslims break the fast with dates every evening, then pray, and then have a meal known as iftar.

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2. Personal Reform – Muslims often use the month to try to improve oneself. If you’re fasting from food, you might also try to fast from criticizing others, from gossiping, or cursing. Many also try to get closer to God by reading the Qur’an or going to the mosque where portions of the text are recited every evening by expert reciters, covering the whole book during the month. Others may engage in extra prayers. Every January, many Canadians try to improve their health with new diets or exercise regimens – this is similar but the goal is improving one’s heart.

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3. Giving Back – Muslims are obligated to give regularly to charity but many try to increase their charitable giving during this month. Since fasting makes one experience the pangs of hunger, food drives are a common practice as fasters raise money and food for those who deal with hunger on a regular basis. This year, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women is raising money to provide financial support to Muslim women escaping gender-based violence. In this way, Ramadan can be of real benefit to the wider community.

4. Building Community – I have a confession: I always have a tinge of Ramadan-envy because I think what many non-Muslims don’t understand is how social the month is. First, there is the sense of going through an ordeal together. If you’ve ever trained for a marathon together or were on a team working hard towards a goal, that shared sacrifice creates a meaningful bond. During Ramadan, your whole community is doing something hard together. On top of that, socialization is built in. You get together every night for the big meal (iftar) when you break the fast. Often people gather together for the meal with extended family, friends, or at the mosque. And finally, when the month ends, you have Eid al-Fitr, the second biggest holiday on the Muslim calendar when you come together, visit, and feast. I have had the privilege of joining Eid festivities at a friend’s house and it is a warm feeling in there and a sense of having done something challenging together.

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How to Be a Good Neighbour

If you have a colleague, student, or neighbour who is fasting, below are some tips, partly inspired by my colleague Sema Burney:

  • Don’t assume who is practicing and who is not. Not all Catholics attend mass on Sunday. Not all Muslims fast.

  • Where appropriate, ask how you can support them. If you have an employee who is fasting, a simple question on how to be supportive shows them they count and is, quite simply, kind.

  • Be aware of certain repetitive questions many Muslims get. The “no water?” question or the suggestion that it must be a great way to lose weight (in truth, many gain weight from feasting just before bed). It can be tiring to answer these questions over and over again.

  • Be sensitive to eating around Muslims, but without apologizing. Muslims do not expect you to fast or to apologize for eating. But a bit of sensitivity about not intentionally eating in front of them is appreciated. In workplaces, avoid lunch meetings.

  • Understand that energy might be low as the day goes on due to hunger, thirst and even no coffee. At work, try to set meetings earlier in the day. If there are off-sites or corporate events that go into the evening, where possible, try to schedule them for another month.

  • Allowing flexible hours in work settings. Muslims are going to be up late and awake early. They may choose to work at different times than normal and may prefer to take a nap in the afternoon. Be flexible wherever possible.

  • Take advantage of the opportunity to connect. For many, religion is pretty central to their life. It can be nice when people ask us about our religious lives. A simple question on whether they have any traditional way of celebrating Eid is a nice opening to learn something about another. We all know the joy of celebrating holidays with loved ones. How nice to swap stories of what we do. Even just the greeting Ramadan Mubarak (blessed Ramadan) is also appreciated.

It’s Ramadan folks. Be thoughtful, make no assumptions, and if someone around you is fasting, ask how you can support them or wish them well. And if you wish to join in the spirit of Ramadan, there are many charities that would love your donation whether you’re fasting or not.

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