Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, begins next week, but the holy month means more than just abstaining from food during daylight hours.
The new moon signals the start of the month, and from about May 15 to mid-June, 1 billion people worldwide won’t eat, drink, smoke or engage in intimacy from sunup to sundown and will instead concentrate on charitable acts and growing closer to God.
Amal Merchant, an active member of the Islamic Society of Simi Valley, said Ramadan is both a physical and spiritual fast.
“It’s not only literally fasting from food, but fasting the whole five senses from doing anything that’s negative,” she said. “It’s a whole month of cleansing. Sometimes we just don’t know that we’re doing a sin. This month, we’re putting in extra effort to not do anything (sinful), so we refrain.”
Salma Kabli, who serves on the board of directors of the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley, said Ramadan requires a good deal of self-discipline.
“It’s training you for 30 days to be a better person,” she said. “You don’t just fast from food and drink; you fast from swearing (and) from being mean to people. People who fast sometimes get ‘hangry,’ but that’s another behavior you have to be aware of and overcome. ”
Muslims focus on faith and fellowship instead of food. Omar Jubran, imam of Islamic Society of Simi Valley, said the month of Ramadan is a “reset button” that allows people to reorganize their priorities.
Instead of focusing on the physical, he said, Muslims can use their own hunger to empathize with the poor and starving and do more good works.
“Our life, it’s a mission to be helpful to others and to be beneficial and to leave a legacy of goodness and righteous deeds,” he said.
Kabli said generosity is just as important as fasting.
“You have to be charitable with time, money, anything to be giving to your fellow man,” she said.
Not everyone participates, and there are exceptions, including those who are elderly, pregnant or ill, but fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam— the tenets that believers hold as the basis for life as a Muslim.
Those who can’t fast still try to abstain in other ways and do more charity because Ramadan is like a “super month” in Islam, Merchant said.
It commemorates the month when the angel Gabriel gave the prophet Muhammad the first portions of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and Muslims are encouraged to make an effort to honor Allah, Merchant said.
“Muslims are encouraged to read the whole of the Quran, (which is) about 620 pages, or approximately 20 pages per day,” she said. “We increase our worship during Ramadan. We pray more prayers. We try to give more to charity than we did before. We cleanse our bodies. We don’t eat for sometimes 12 hours a day, sunrise to sunset. It’s a detox.”
Some years, fasting can be a little harder than others. That’s because Ramadan follows the Muslim lunar calendar, not a solar calendar such as is used in the U.S., and the differences cause the Muslim month to move 11 days each year relative to the solar calendar, Kabli said.
Ten years from now, for example, Ramadan will fall during January and February, where the fasting daylight hours will be much shorter than during the summer months.
Kabli said that when Ramadan falls during the summer, it takes a bit more preparation to get through the day. She said that she and her family wake up at 3:30 a.m. for their predawn meal. Nightly prayers and recitations of the Quran at the mosque can last until midnight.
“You have to make sure you wake up early enough to drink and prepare yourself for the long day, as compared to winter, where it starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Now it starts at 4 a.m. and goes to 8 p.m.,” she said.
But because God holds back the devil during Ramadan, Merchant said, Muslims can withstand the fast, no matter when the month falls.
“We feel the stress, but it’s not a heavy burden for us,” she said. “We feel lighter, happier in Ramadan. We find it much easier to pray than the other times of the year.”
Once the holy month ends, Muslims celebrate with Eid al- Fitr, an end-of-fast feast. Merchant said that in other parts of the world the feast might last for three full days, but in the United States it’s often only celebrated as a group festival for one day to prevent too much disruption to daily life. After that, families can celebrate among themselves or with friends.
Local mosques typically gather to celebrate the first morning of Eid with prayer and breakfast then allow members to return to work or school, or continue to feast on their own.
The Islamic Center of Conejo Valley rents out the Dos Vientos Community Center for the celebration, and the Islamic Society of Simi Valley meets at the Rancho Santa Susana Community Center.
“We have an imam do a short lecture and then we do the celebratory prayer. We have a feast, we have games and prizes,” Merchant said. “This only lasts from 7 to 10 a.m. . . . After that, people go back to work or school, or if they took the whole day off, they make a day out of it if they’re able to.”
But whether they take a few hours or a few days, Merchant said, Muslims finish Ramadan and Eid with a closer connection to God.
“It’s a form of relief and not stress during Ramadan,” she said. “People actually look forward to Ramadan. We don’t know anyone who is like ‘Oh man, here comes Ramadan.’ It’s the most-loved month of the year.”