The fast of the month of Ramadan is one of the five major obligations of individual Muslims (the other four being the pronunciation of the confession of God's Unity, the five daily prayers, the religious tax, and the pilgrimage to Mecca). The Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, charts a middle positionThus we have made you a community of the middle path" (2:143)etween the ascetic ideal of Christian monastic practices and the more materialistic style of Jewish religion. Islamic fasting during Ramadan is quite harsh by Western standards and includes a full month of total abstinence from food and drink during the hours between dawn and sunset, although the evenings are a time of joy and celebration. The period of fasting during Ramadan is not an individual religious exercise, but part of a great social event that binds individual Muslims collectively.
The Qur'an explains the significance of this time of prayer and abstinence. During the Medina period, which marked the last ten years of the life of the prophet Muhammad (57032 C.E.), Muslims were instructed to join the Jews in prayer in the direction of Jerusalem, to the north. After the Jews of Medina refused to recognize Muhammad as a prophet and obstructed his ideal of an Islamic state, the Prophet received a revelation that his followers should turn to the Ka'aba of Mecca (to the south of Medina). The Qur'an (2:18387) prescribes fasting during the month of Ramadan, but prior to Muhammad's revelation, followers observed the fast of the day of Atonement or Ashura, as did the Jews. The institution of the Ramadan fast marked a return to an older Arab tradition that included abstaining from warfare and blood feuds. (In the same chapter of the Qur'an a third Arab institution was restored and reinterpreted: the pilgrimage to Mecca [2:19603].)
The fast of Ramadan was reinterpreted as an instrument for the forgiveness of sins. It was instituted in commemoration of the Prophet's first revelation, which occurred during that month (on the twenty-first, twenty-third, twenty-fifth, and twenty-seventh of Ramadan) and in awareness of God's decision about man's fate for the coming year. From dawnn fact, from the moment when a black thread can be distinguished from a white onentil sunset nothing may enter the body through any of its parts. Therefore, not only are eating and drinking forbidden, but also the use of fragrant perfume and even sexual intercourse. Women who menstruate during this period are not allowed to observe fasting but must make up for the days they miss by fasting later on.
In the first generations after Muhammad the basis was laid for what is known as the shari'a or Islamic law. Scholars during the first century after Muhammad developed the rules for determining the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan. It is commonly accepted that some part of the new moon must be "seen" (physically or intellectually, i.e., directly observed or by calculation), although there is a divergence of opinion among Muslim communities concerning the correct method for defining the start and finish of the month of Ramadan. Travelers and those who are sick are excused from the fast, but even these exceptions are disputed, as are the various compensations for some days of fasting or the alms given to the poor.In addition to the month of Ramadan, there are voluntary days of fasting for Muslims, such as the tenth day of Muharam (Ashura, a continuation of the Jewish day of atonement, although the Islamic lunar calendar does not
Fasting not only constitutes abstinence from food. Pious Muslim preachers stress that fasting is more an exercise of the mind than of the body. The prophet Muhammad said, "He is not a good Muslim who eats his fill and leaves his neighbor hungry" (Glassé, p. 112). The mystical theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111) proposed a category of fasting that included "other parts of the body" (besides the mouth and the sexual organs): The eyes and the hands should be kept under control and prevented from evil. Attention must be given to the poor during the month of Ramadan, and the special "alms tax" (zakat fitra) or "gift of breaking the fast" consists of 2.5 kilograms of rice or the equivalent in money given to the poor. Slander and gossip in particular are forbidden during Ramadan, and a saying from Muhammad supports this admonition: "If one does not give up saying false words and doing false deeds in Ramadan, giving up eating and drinking means nothing to Allah" (Buitelaar, p. 22).
Some preachers suggest that the daily fast should be followed by a light meal only and by many prayers. A folk custom ends a day of fasting in the manner of Muhammad: Commonly, a Muslim eats a date first, following the example of the Prophet. In countries where fresh dates are not available, they are imported from abroad to facilitate this custom of the believers. It is also quite common for Muslims to invite friends and relatives to their homes on certain days so that they might experience this rewarding moment together after a full day of fasting: breaking the fast together with a first light meal (iftar, literally meaning the breaking snack), accompanied by the pious words of a preacher.
Local kitchens serve a great variety of dishes during the evenings of Ramadan. In the Indonesian province of Aceh, known for its devout Islam, believers eat beras tape, a porridge of fermented sweet rice, as their first snack after a day of fasting. Because of the process of fermentation, this snack contains a significant amount of alcohol, but it is considered a traditional food, not a drink, and is therefore acceptable to pious Muslims. Fish is not considered a good choice for Ramadan meals because it is too light and does not provide a good base for the next day of fasting. A tomato soup (harira) that is prepared with a variety of vegetables and beef, buffalo, or lamb is much more substantial and provides longer-lasting nutrition. In countries of the Middle East it is closely identified with the celebration of Ramadan. Sometimes before dawn a heavy "breakfast" (sahur) is consumed in preparation for a full day of fasting. Buitelaar mentions (p. 47) a daily meal of rabbit that is eaten at 3:00 A.M. in Morocco.
After Ramadan, on the first day of the month of Shawwal, the so-called small festival is celebrated. A major festival also occurs on the tenth day of the month of the hajj, when the sacrifice of Abraham is recalled, but the end of Ramadan brings the greatest joy to Muslims: Relatives are visited and many types of sweets are consumed. In Turkey, this celebration is known as the sugar festival, a celebration also marked in recent decades in parts of Europe where Turkish migrants have settled.
Some mystical or local groups have developed special kinds of fasting, which are either not generally accepted or even denounced by other Muslims. In order to obtain special favors from God, Muslims in Indonesia, especially on the island of Java, practice the mutihan, or "white fasting." Muslims there only eat white rice and boiled eggs, and they drink plain ("white") water during a certain period, often to implement a vow. Members of the Khalidiyah branch of the Naqshbandiyah brotherhood practice suluk (spiritual travel) or khalwat (loneliness), a forty-day period of abstinence from meat and some other dishes; believers also refrain, as much as possible, from talking. Their opponents blame them for introducing a Christian habit (forty days of fasting, and abstinence from meat) into a well-defined Muslim regulation.
The Islamic rules on haram (forbidden) foods and drink, such as pork and wine, are not considered akin to the pious acts of fasting or abstinence, but rather are part of the regular observance of taboos and are therefore beyond the scope of this entry.
In many regions and during different periods of Muslim culture, ascetic and mystical movements have introduced elements of abstinence, some from sexual intercourse, others from various luxuries such as perfumes during certain periods. For the especially pious and for those who make special vows, milk and meat are avoided, and there are even vows of abstinence from sleep.
In modern Muslim communities, both in countries with Muslim majorities and also in the new Muslim diaspora in Western countries, the fast of Ramadan is one of the most carefully observed aspects of Islamic custom. Even among secularized Muslims, who do not say their prayers five times each day or who only very seldom join the Friday prayers, there is an attempt to keep the fast for part of the month of Ramadan, as a way of keeping in touch with their spiritual and cultural roots. As with those who are more devout, the festive moment in which the fast is broken is a central element. In 1963 Ahmad Hasan al-Zayyat, the editor of the journal of the Al-Azhar mosque and university in Cairo, commented bitterly on the way of fasting: "We do not have any more thirty days of fasting, but thirty days of breaking the fast" (Goitein, p. 108). This comment may reflect the general practice of fasting and abstinence found in Islamic culture, where a middle path has been found: between strict religious and cultural interpretation, between individual piety and communal belief. The middle path of Islamic fasting and abstinence lies between ascetism and pure materialism.
See also Christianity; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Islam; Judaism; Middle East; Ramadan.
Buitelaar, Marjo. "Fasting and Feasting in Morocco. An Ethnographic Study of the Month of Ramadan." Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen University, 1991.
Glassé, Cyril. The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam. London: Stacey International, 1989.
Goitein, S. D. Studies in Islamic History and Institutions. Leiden: Brill, 1968.
Parshall, Phil. Inside the Community. Understanding Muslims through Their Traditions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994, pp. 19601.
Qardawi, Yusuf. The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam. Indianapolis, Ind.: American Trust Publications, 1990.
Wagtendonk, Kees. Fasting in the Qur'an. Leiden: Brill, 1969.
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