Ramadan Guide For Non-Muslims

Salam alaykum! Which means peace be upon you, and is a traditional greeting for Muslims, but also common among the Arab Jews and Christians, and as my following few posts deal with my religion and the approaching month of Ramadan, I decided to greet you all properly.

So, Ramadan, the Holy Month of Muslims is shortly upon us – less than half a month away, really. During Ramadan, the majority of Muslims, all around the world, follow the mandatory fasting and this sometimes lead to confusion between Muslims and non-Muslims. Many of you might have some questions concerning the whole thing, so I strive to answer at least some of them. And that is why you are now reading The Crash Guide to Ramadan for non-Muslims.

What And When Is Ramadan?

Ramadan, the Holy Month of Qur’an is the ninth month of the Muslim moon calendar, which means it moves roughly 10 days earlier each year as the moon calendar is 10 days shorter than the “normal” sun based Gregorian calendar that we all use.

Ramadan has been said to be the month of the Holy Qur’an because our beloved Prophet, Muhammad (pbuh) received the first part of the Qur’an during this month. It is also special in bringing us Muslims together in remembrance of Allah, the Most High, and all the blessings we have been given, and to observe one of the five pillars of Islam – the fasting.

During Ramadan, especially through our fast, we are starkly reminded that there are those who don’t have as much as we do, and we are encouraged to share our food and wealth. As fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, it is mandatory for every adult Muslim to fast unless they are acutely or chronically ill, diabetic, menstruating or breastfeeding, travelling, or elderly. You can fast, if your health allows it – for instance I fasted during my Cabin Crew days when I was flying from Finland to the Canaries. There were days when it became too much, especially if the flights were busy, so I had to break my fast for that day, and this is completely understandable as we are not allowed to endanger our health because of the fast.

In 2023, Ramadan should be starting on the evening of 22nd of March and finish on the evening of 21st of April, inshallah. We say “should” and “inshallah” because of two reasons:

  • Nothing in this world is certain unless Allah wills it so. This is the exact reason why many Muslims use the term “inshallah” quite often – it literally means “If Allah wills”.
  • Because we follow the Moon calendar, it can be predicted when the new moon can be seen on the sky, but it might differ from the prediction by 1-2 days. Ramadan only begins when the Moon has been sighted.

The Moon? What Does The Moon Have To Do With It?

Yes, Muslims follow the moon calendar instead of sun calendar that is the “normal” one we use for every day. Moon calendar is actually more accurate, there is no need for leap days every for years and so on – and this is because the time is based on the phases of the moon. Which also means that due to this, the position for Ramadan changes every year about 10 days.

Also, you can sometimes hear people talking about the start of Ramadan and there can be different opinions – this is normal. And it is normal because there are some (majority, actually) who follow Saudi-Arabia when it comes to the Moon sighting, then there are some who follow the local sighting, time zones, naked eye sighting or through a telescope… And what if there is clouds?

So yes, you can be assured that Ramadan starts, but when… that is the debate, every year.

The Moon also affects the end of Ramadan, as stated in this Hadith.

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Whenever you sight the new Moon (of the month of Ramadan) observe fast. And when you sight it (the new Moon of Shawwal) break it, and if the sky is cloudy for you, then observe fast for thirty days.

Hadith 2378, Sahih Muslim Book 6

In other words, we Muslims gaze to the skies to see the new crescent of the month of Shawwal (the month following Ramadan), but if we cannot see the new moon, then it means the fast continues for 30 days and no more.

PBUH? Hadith? Are You Speaking Greek?

When we Muslims mention The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), we add these mystical letter after his name. The same way if you mention his name we do the same thing, except then we don’t of course use the abbreviation, instead we use the whole sentence: Peace Be Upon Him. Or we can do it in Arabic as well, as Arabic is the language of Islam: S.A.W. = Salla-llahu Alayhi Wa-sallam. It means the same.

Hadith refers to the speeches, actions, and silent approval of the Prophet (pbuh) on certain matters. This guidance has been passed down the centuries and are generally accepted to be valid. These guidances deal with matters that have not been mentioned, or are mentioned by passing, in the Qur’an.

The Fast

As you already know, we Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan, from sunrise to sunset. And long ago you might have heard a term “when you can distinguish a white thread from a black thread.” That is actually a bit more correct term, as the fast starts with the daybreak, not when the sun rises above the horizon. We call this time of the day fajr. And the fast lasts until the sun has set, or maghrib as we call the time.

For the whole of Ramadan, which usually lasts for 30 days, we Muslims try to abstain from eating and drinking, smoking, and even marital relations during the time between sunrise and sunset. We are encouraged to work, be productive, and concentrate on our spirituality – and need to avoid gossiping and backbiting, and also fights. All of these aforementioned examples would terminate the fast for the day.

The length of the fast varies from country to country, depending on the time that the sun remains in the sky. During the summer months, the further you are from the equator, the longer the fast, and in the winter months, it is the other way around. In my native Finland, during the height of summer, the fast can be about 20 hours. It is also said that if we live that far north, we could and should follow either Meccan time or the time of a nearest Muslim country, but I have to say I have been happy fasting by the Finnish time as it is a test of character and has felt like an easy task. Surprisingly enough, fasting outside of Ramadan feels much more like a chore.

As a fun fact, did you know that Morocco in Arabic is called Maghrebi? It means the land of sunset as it is the last country before the vast Atlantic ocean.

You Fast, But Can I Eat?

Of course you can! If I happen to be on my break at the same time with you, it doesn’t mean you have to shy away from your activities just because I fast.

In some countries, it is encouraged to turn away to drink or eat as a sign of respect, but whilst appreciating the gesture, I don’t see it as mandatory. There are times when I join my colleagues at breaks, and there are times when I have my breaks coinciding with prayer times.

For me, fasting is something that I need to do. Through the fast, I am reminded that in many places of the world, we live in abundance and that not everyone is as blessed as I am.

“But You Need To Have At Least Some Water!”

This is a sentence that I personally have heard many times from my nursing colleagues. They have even gone that far to suggest that I don’t drink water but let them insert an IV so I get some fluids in my system intravenously.

But no, fasting means fasting. No water, no other liquids, no food.

The fast is more than abstinence. It is a mental challenge and a test for us to resist worldly temptations. But we would appreciate it if you didn’t try to find ways to find loopholes for us.

What you can do for us, instead, is to take our turn to brew the coffee at the workplace. For me, not having coffee in the morning is the worst part of the fast. And if the fasting hours are long and last until 10 pm, do you think I will have a cup of coffee then? So, many times, I try to quit coffee totally for a month. This, as a Finnish person, is my form of jihad.

“You Must Feel Tired, Have A Rest!”

Thank you for your understanding. Fasting might make us feel a bit more tired, at least during the first days of Ramadan, but we should not use it as an excuse to squirm out of our daily jobs and chores. Occasionally, we might need to sit down for a moment to regain our energy, but it will pass. And if it doesn’t, we just have to break our fast for the day and try again tomorrow.

For us Muslims, Ramadan is something we wait for the whole year, and it is a highlight of the year. So the fast is a positive thing for us, and even though sometimes it makes us feel weak and tired, we strive to remain happy and optimistic. This is exactly the reason why I don’t mind fasting for 19-20 hours, as it fills me with such feelings that I can not even explain.

Sometimes, I hear some comments saying that fasting is foolish and it is wrong that we are forced to fast. Actually, we are not. There is no one (but Allah) watching us and making sure we fast. We do it because we want to do it, and it has health benefits too.

This Fasting Thing… It Sounds Strangely Familiar…

Some years ago, a new health and weight loss routine was introduced. It is called intermittent fasting, and that is probably what you are thinking of.

For me, it feels peculiar how modern science labels this as something new and exciting, whilst this intermittent fasting is something that we Muslims have been doing for over a millennia.

But, the basics may be the same, but the intermittent fasting is not as rigorous as Ramadan fast – mainly because you don’t have to wake up before the sun goes up to start yours.

The benefits – they are good! So I do recommend you to try fasting!

In case you were wondering about the religious aspect of fasting sounding familiar. The Christians also observe Lent, which lasts for 40 days before Easter. It is not as rigorous as the Ramadan, but still acts the same way – to remind us about the hardships that people face.

Breakfast Time!

In the evening, when the sun has set and maghrib prayers begin, we break the fast. Traditionally, it is done with either water or milk and three dates.

Dates are a perfect way to raise your blood sugar level after a day of fasting and to restore your energy to combat exhaustion.

After breakfast, it shortly is the time for iftar, the main meal of the day. As is customary in the Islamic culture, don’t be surprised if you receive an invitation to break the fast and enjoy food with your Muslim friends. Depending on the country you live in, the time of Iftar can be quite late, so if you can not attend, we are sure to understand!

…And A Quick Bite Before The Fast Begins Again

It is recommended by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that Muslims eat suhur before starting their daily fast. Usually, it is a light snack, some sandwiches, lots of water, and juice to keep you hydrated during the day.

So all in all, we Muslims do eat and drink during Ramadan. We shouldn’t do it in excess as Ramadan is all about moderation and reminding ourselves that not everyone has as much as we do. But like it is during Christmastime, we cook a lot and eat well together with our friends and family.

I hope that this little guide in three parts has given you some insight to Ramadan and allows you to better understand your Muslim friends. And if you feel adventurous enough, invite them for iftar at your place one evening!

So… Is it Happy Ramadan, Or…?

I have saved this vital piece of information to the last, because it is so close to my own heart.

It is customary to wish well and good thoughts to people observing their holy days or holy months. We Muslims are no exception to this, and whilst it is perfectly good to wish Happy Ramadan or Blessed Ramadan you can also say “Ramadan kareem” (generous Ramadan) or “Ramadan mubarak” (blessed Ramadan). With these traditional well wishes, you are most likely to draw a big smile from your Muslim friends.

So to you all, be you young or old, non-Muslim, or Muslim, I wish you all…

Ramadan kareem!

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