What is this whole Ramadan thing about, anyways?

August 11, 2010

During the month of Ramadan (August 11 – September 10), I am going to be posting daily reviews of books that deal with Islam, as well as other discussion posts related to the topics that come out of these books. I will be writing about both fiction and non-fiction books, and from a variety of sources and perspectives.

Today is the first day of Ramadan, the holy month celebrated around the world by Muslims. I am writing this post as a sort of an introduction to Ramadan for those who aren’t familiar with it, and also to explain my connection to it and the reasons for my month-long Ramadan Reading event here at Reading Through Life.


Some basic information about Ramadan:

  • Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This is why Ramadan seems to be at a different time every year – it really is, usually moving 10 days earlier from one year to the next.
  • It is believed that Ramadan is when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
  • Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the main beliefs upon which the faith is based. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink anything (including water) or have sex from just before sunrise until just after sunset.
  • Muslims start fasting yearly for Ramadan once they have hit puberty, though children sometimes fast a day or two at a time before that in order to “train” themselves. Those who are elderly, chronically ill, or mentally ill are exempt from fasting. (There are other exemptions, but these are the most important and basic ones.)
  • The requirements for Ramadan are not limited to a simple restriction of physical desires. Muslims are also supposed to be cognizant of what they say and do, in order to re-evaluate and improve their lives, practice self-discipline, and strengthen their relationship with God.
  • Ramadan is also a time of increased prayers, communal worship in the mosque, and time spent with family.

You can also find out more about the basics of Ramadan in various books or around the internet.

Important dates, names, and/or terms for understanding Ramadan:

  • Hilal: the first waxing crescent moon, which is used to determine the astronomical “new moon” by which the beginning of a new month in the Islamic lunar calendar is indicated. This date is often disputed, since the Saudis insist on sighting the new moon with the naked eye; today, most Muslims and mosques around the world use astronomical calculations rather than a physical moon sighting.
  • Suhoor: the pre-dawn meal eaten by Muslims every day during the month of Ramadan. Muslims have to stop eating before the call to prayer for Fajr (the first of the five daily prayers, which happens at dawn), so most Muslims take advantage of Suhoor – which can be spelled and pronounced a variety of ways – to eat and drink something before undertaking the full day of fasting. This is usually enjoyed as a family meal; however, some Muslims ( particularly young single ones) will simply have a glass of water and a small snack such as a granola bar sitting next to their bed to wake up and eat.
  • Iftar: the meal eaten by Muslims every day during the month of Ramadan to break the fast. This meal is eaten directly after Maghrib (the fourth of the five daily prayers, which happens at sunset), though Muslims usually have something very small – such as a date and a glass of milk – when the adhan (call to prayer) is sounded, in order to break their fast, pray, and then eat a full meal.
  • Taraweeh: these are special nightly prayers during the month of Ramadan, held nightly in mosques. Every night, a Juz’ (section of 1/30 of the Qur’an) is recited, so that the entire Qur’an will have been read by the end of Ramadan.
  • Laylat al-Qadr: the “night of power” is considered the most holy night of the year, as it is supposed to be the first night that God revealed Qur’anic verses to the Prophet Muhammad. The exact date is unknown, but it is believed to be an odd-numbered night in the last 10 days of Ramadan. Almost all mosques will hold 24-hour prayer vigils during these 10 days – though most Muslims are obviously unable to attend, given work and other responsibilities – since the Night of Power is supposed to be “better than one thousand nights” and thus is considered the most important in terms of prayer, fasting, Qur’an recitation, charity, and remembrance of God.
  • Eid ul-Fitr: the first day of the month of Shawwal, which marks the end of Ramadan, is the large holiday or celebration that Muslims celebrate after Ramadan is over. It symbolizes the breaking of the fast, usually lasts for three days (more in some countries), and is known as the “Smaller Eid” as compared to the “other” Eid after the yearly Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). There is also a special congregational Eid prayer that should be performed if possible, before most Muslims begin to visit friends and family to celebrate.

My connection to Ramadan:

You may or may not know this already, but I’m Muslim.

<dramatic pause in case of gasps or shocked silence>

(Just kidding.)

It’s a bit of a story, actually. I was brought up Roman Catholic, but I had doubts – and, later, actual distaste – towards the religion from a very early age. I started to consider myself an Atheist around the time I started high school, when I was fourteen years old. That was how I identified myself, with varying degrees of militancy, for the next ten years of my life.

In the fall/winter of 2007, I started dating my current partner, who is originally from the Middle East and happens to be Muslim. I had already become somewhat interested in learning more about Islam, but not for any specific reason – there was just something about it that intrigued me and made me want to learn more. When Zaid and I had been dating for almost a year, I picked up an English translation of the Qur’an and read it over a span of about a month, little by little. After that, I started picking up other books, starting (somewhat embarrassingly) with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Koran and later moving into some very deep and intellectually rigorous books about complex theological debates, particularly concerning gender and sexuality.

Eventually, I realized that a lot of what I had read made a lot of sense to me, particularly the more liberal, progressive interpretations. I kept reading, and started going to occasional study groups (called halaqas) at one of the local Toronto mosques.

Last year, on Saturday, August 8th, I recited the shahadah and officially converted to Islam.

This is my second Ramadan.

What is this Ramadan Reading event for?

I realized shortly after I started keeping a book blog that, although there are many Christian book blogs (and bloggers!) out there, there weren’t really any mainstream Muslim book blogs. Sure, there are reviews posted for books now and then when people read them, but that’s about it – nothing as regular as, say, Faith ‘n’ Fiction Saturdays. For me, especially as a new-ish convert, Ramadan is about learning about Islam, so I’m already doing a lot of personal reading this month related to my faith.

So I figured, why not have a month-long event highlighting Islam and Muslims during Ramadan, for everyone to join in! It just made sense. And so far, I’ve heard from quite a number of people who are interested by the idea, so it’s definitely taken off as something I will probably be doing every year.

Finally, I am leaving you with two videos.

The first video is an explanation of the very basics of Ramadan, as told by Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens). It’s not comprehensive, but it does give a fairly good idea of some of the reasons why Muslims fast and the types of benefits that we’re supposed to get out of it. Enjoy!

The second video is from last year, the official Ramadan Message that was sent out by Obama last August. It also gives a bit of background into Ramadan, and is just all kinds of yummy. (Have I mentioned recently how much I heart Obama?)

16 Comments

  • Kailia Sage August 11, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    That’s so cool that your Muslim. My friend is Muslim and she celebrates Ramadan as well!

    • Carina August 13, 2010 at 12:29 am

      Yay! I’m kind of a solo Muslim most of the time, since my family isn’t, but it’s still fun to join up with friends for the breaking of fast a few times during the month. 🙂

  • Helen Murdoch August 11, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    My ex-husband is Muslim, but not really practicing. He doesn’t observe Ramadan or anything. We’re headed to Oman again this winter (yes, I go as well even though we’re divorced…it’s kind of complicated); it’ll be my 4th visit

    • Carina August 13, 2010 at 12:30 am

      Odd, but fun! At least you still get along well enough to travel together?

      I still haven’t crossed any of the oceans, but have done a fair bit of travelling within Canada, the US, and a bit in the Caribbean. One day, I will definitely head over there!

  • erisian23 August 11, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    happy late conversion anniversary!

  • Amy August 12, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Heh, I love your 😉 and obviously, as I am participating, I love the idea! Thank you for including your own conversion story, really great to hear how you chose Islam!

    • Carina August 13, 2010 at 12:31 am

      Thanks a lot! I’m really glad that people seem to be enjoying it so far. 🙂

  • Jessica August 13, 2010 at 8:57 am

    This is a great idea for this month esp since Ive just recently read The House of the Mosque and my husband has read Percepolis which are both set in Iran.

    I’ve known quite a few muslims over the years and have always found that how each one observes Ramadan are often very diverse from some not doing anything at all over the period to other suffering withdraw symptoms from lack of cigarettes.

    • Carina August 13, 2010 at 10:40 am

      I definitely agree that a lot of Muslims observe Ramadan in different ways. There are some basics, but other than that, it’s pretty open to interpretation.

  • Niranjana (Brown Paper) August 13, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Appreciate your sharing your road to Islam on this forum. This makes your Ramadan Reading so much more personal–I’ll be following your posts with much interest.

    • Carina August 13, 2010 at 3:44 pm

      Thank you! I figured it might be more interesting to people if they knew there was a personal connection. But also, I just think that people should learn more about each other, regardless of the specific religion!

  • Lisa August 14, 2010 at 7:50 am

    ohhhhh didn’t know you’re a Muslim too =D Yeah it’s true. It’s hard to find blogs doing Muslims books out there. I’m glad I’m not the only one doing it =D

    And about Sahoor. Yesss! It is so hardddd to find a book blogger who actually blog about Muslims lits. Do we even have any muslim fiction o.0

  • Darlyn August 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

    HI Carina! I never know you are a Muslim! and me too! but I born as Muslim. That is quite a journey of you to convert and chose Islam. Well, you should come to Malaysia. LOL. You are right about not having many Islam book blogs and I cant really find Islam fiction or ever read one! Of course we have but it’s all in Malay language.

    • Carina August 21, 2010 at 8:09 pm

      It’s not exactly something that comes up regularly, so it’s perfectly alright that you didn’t know! 😉

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