This past month (June 18-July 17) was the holy month of Ramadan, when the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. My friends here tell me that they look forward to Ramadan all year. They say, “it is a beautiful time” and “everyone during Ramadan is nice.” After Ramadan they feel “good” and “clean.” Ramadan is the name of the 9th month in the Islamic calendar and it means “to burn” because Muslims sins are meant to be burned during Ramadan. It is one of the 5 pillars of Islam in addition to:
- Shahadah– declaring that there is no god except God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger
- Salat- praying 5 times a day
- Zakat- giving 2.5% of one’s savings to the poor and needy
- Hajj- pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Mohammed’s birthplace and holiest city in Islam) at least once in one’s lifetime if one is able
Fasting from sun up to sun down is obligatory for all adult Muslims except for the sick, traveling, elderly, pregnant, breastfeeding, and menstruating women. Though they must make up the days they miss. Besides not eating and drinking, Muslims must also not smoke, have sex, engage in false speech (gossip, insult, lie, curse, etc), and fight.
These practices are met to cleanse the soul. My Mudir told me that Ramadan is a time to “reset” and practice self-discipline and self-control. Fasting is also meant for Muslims to feel empathy with the poor and needy and encourage generosity and Zakat. I was surprised when I found out my neighbors made food everyday for the many construction workers in my neighborhood.
I fasted for 2 or 3 weeks during Ramadan in the West Bank (Palestine) one summer when I was working at the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative (BPYI) summer camps. I was interested in experiencing fasting though I did drink water. I felt grumpy without food. I remember eagerly anticipating delicious meals with my Muslim and Bard friends after the sun set, especially on the rooftops with amazing views of Mas’ha (the village where the BPYI camps are held). Food during Ramadan is extra special. After fasting, my body felt cleansed.
I fasted the first 5 days of Ramadan this year in Morocco out of respect for Muslims and to experience what my community members are experiencing this month and what the poor and needy experience everyday. Everyone asked me if I was fasting. When I told them I fasted for 5 days they were impressed though some people told me I should convert to Islam, fast the entire month, and pray with them at the mosque. I normally tell these people I am Christian.
It was challenging to fast for 5 days especially in the hot weather.- in the 100s (Farenheit) during the day and 80s and 90s at night. It even went up as high as 120! I have trouble with the heat even without fasting! I don’t know how people do it! I have to drink water regularly in order to not get dehydrated.
I observed that most people change their schedules from day to night if they can during Ramadan because of the challenge of going without food and drink and the extreme heat. The streets were practically deserted until 4 or 5PM when men would do their errands before the sunset meal called iftar which also means breakfast. People sleep in the mornings, prepare food in the afternoons and eat, and then spend time with family and friends, watch TV, and take walks around town at night. The pre-dawn meal is called suhur. [I tried this schedule while I was fasting and I struggled because I naturally get sleepy around 12AM and am not hungry at night.]
During fasting I noticed how much time I spent preparing and eating food and washing dishes. Fasting for me was a physical and not religious experience. I have been reflecting on how Islam plays a major role for people in my site.
The main goal of Ramadan for Muslims is to deepen their connection with Allah (God). Besides the normal 5 times of prayer (Salat al-fajr (dawn, before sunrise), Salat al-zuhur (midday), Salat al-‘asar (late afternoon), Salat al-maghrib (after sunset), and Salat al-‘isha (between sunset and midnight), there are extra prayers after the Salat al-‘isha called Tarawih. By the end of Ramadan the entire Quran is read and recited. After the iftar dishes were cleaned, my neighbors put on their traditional Moroccan clothing over their pajamas, grabbed their prayer rugs, and excused themselves to go to the mosque. They normally invited me to take a nap or watch TV in their houses until they came back, but sometimes I went home. One day on my way home past the neighborhood mosque, I saw the people (men are in the front and women are in the back) setting up their prayer rugs in the direction of Mecca outside because the mosque was too hot. It was so beautiful. Another day I heard them chanting together.