For something routinely observed by just under a quarter of the world's population, there are still many misconceptions about Ramadan, especially in the West. I would like to devote some time in this column to exploring the yearly practice in detail. The Muslim month of fasting is without doubt a global matter, and the practices of Ramadan may affect business hours, accessibility and availability. Your clients and your colleagues may be fasting. A person you're interviewing for a new position may be fasting. Even the waiter at the hotel where you're on holiday may be fasting. (I have been that colleague, that applicant and that waiter in my day.) For a month each year, more people may share this religious practice than during any other four-week period, whether they are rich or poor, white, black or brown, in school, employed or retired, driving a taxi or running a multinational corporation, heartbroken or in love, gay, straight, devout or skeptical.
The Technicalities of Ramadan
It would be impossible to know how many of the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims are fasting. The dawn-to-dusk ritual began on May 26 and lasts until the next new moon — presumably June 24. In the Northern Hemisphere it's a long fasting day. For example, from 3:45 a.m. in the New York area, when you wake and have a good breakfast to bolster you through the day until about 8:15 p.m. when you break your fast. That's 16.5 hours with no food or water and other restrictions I'll mention in a moment. In Lahore, India, fasting runs from 3:15 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. In Manchester, England, 2:32 a.m. to 9:27 p.m. For Mosul in Iraq and Raqaa in Syria, it's 3 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. In the Southern Hemisphere, fasting days are a bit shorter: In Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 6:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. In Cape Town, South Africa, 6:15 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Jakarta, Indonesia, from 4:40 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Mindanao, the Philippines, from 7:00 a.m. to 6:05 p.m.; and in Myanmar, from 4:10 a.m. to 6:35 p.m.
The exact length of each fasting day changes as the Earth rotates around the sun, getting longer as we approach summer solstice and shorter as we approach winter. Hence, Ramadan connects you with the physical world. The arc of the sun in the sky becomes an important observation as one anticipates the joy and relief of iftar (breaking the daily fast), ideally with family and friends. Often it is a ritual of sharing dates, water and sweet tea. The swelling of the moon each evening is a moment to contemplate the limits of your patience and resolution, and to appreciate nocturnal beauty. Its waning is a signal that your morning joe comes on the shorter side of two weeks.
During the month of Ramadan it is traditional to read the entire Koran — Islam's sacred text. More people may attend communal prayers, like "Christmas and Easter" Christians. Those who are practicing in Muslim-majority countries may enjoy shorter workdays and longer evening hours socializing; people may spend more time awake at night, when eating is permissible, and sleep more during the day when it's time to fast. Working full-time is the nature of the game for those of us in places where life goes on as usual during Ramadan.
Many people are exempt from fasting because they're pregnant, nursing, traveling, ill, or too old or too young for the fast to be a healthy practice. Generally, young people are expected to fast once they've reached puberty, but traditions may vary from family to community to nation. Let's not forget that many people simply abstain. Like Christians who do not observe Lent, and Jews who do not fast on Yom Kippur, plenty of "cultural" or "ethical" Muslims may not fast during the month of Ramadan. Some who abstain may give additional charity instead, or offer food and hospitality to others.
A Personal and Shared Observance
For me, getting into the rhythm of fasting takes a few days. It's uncomfortable at first. I'm thirsty. I'm hungry. My belly complains. I get tired, struggle to focus and want to sleep. The challenge is to honor my word and triumph over temptation, and once my body adjusts to the new schedule, conviction tends to conquer comfort.
No matter where a fasting Muslim may be, Ramadan is a call for an internal spiritual and physical cease-fire. The point of the fast is to worship the Divine by demonstrating control over earthly desires — typically food, drink, tobacco and sex — during daylight hours. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate "high road" values — being gracious, generous and gentle — toward others no matter how cranky or irritated you might be, especially when your blood sugar plummets and your mouth is too dry to speak. The combination of physical and spiritual self-awareness is a test of character: When your stomach growls from hunger will you snap at your pesky child? Your thoughtless neighbor? A careless colleague? The boorish driver who cut you off? Or will you remain peaceful, practicing the patience and graciousness you promised yourself and your Creator? A practice it is, replete with discoveries and acknowledgements of imperfection and abounding with opportunities to ask forgiveness and try again.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar. It's measured from new moon to new moon, with no 30- or 31-day months, and no Leap Year. Thus the calendar year is 10-11 days shorter than the solar calendar. "May you see Ramadan in every season of the year," is a popular greeting because indeed, it comes during the season of planting and then 16 years later you are fasting during the harvest. I remember one Thanksgiving when I couldn't taste anything until we served our guests at 5:18 pm. What an iftar that was!
A Coincidence of Faith
For several years in the 1970s, Ramadan fell during autumn and coincided with Yom Kippur. The most famous coincidence was on Oct. 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack against Israel on the High Holy Day.
How do fasting men fight? Their strength must be compromised. So too their mental acuity (although sometimes I find myself reaching peaks of lucidity when I fast; I know others do, too). But even if you're lucid, how do generals and soldiers justify fighting during a month — or on a day — that prescribes piety and self-restraint? How can fasting people commit acts of war and terrorism during Ramadan? Can they call themselves "Muslim" with integrity? During the hajj, Islam's other great religious practice, you are forbidden even to kill a fly while you are in the Holy Precinct of Mecca. So, to kill a human being during Ramadan?
This has always puzzled me.
2017 is the second year in a row that Ramadan coincides with the anniversary of the Six-Day War. This year is the 50th anniversary of the June war and mixed emotions must be running through Muslims fasting in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and beyond. For many people this marks half a century of loss, occupation, dependence and vulnerability. Fifty years of anger for some and resignation for others. Fifty years of limited security for human beings on many borders in the modern Middle East.
Will the precepts of Ramadan mitigate the militancy and horrors of terrorism that seem ubiquitous, while practitioners seek guidance in the Holy Book?
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you that you may (learn) self-restraint (Quran, 2:183)
People, We created you from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another. In God's eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, and all aware (of your true worth and the thoughts you harbor) (Quran 49:13)
Believers, say, 'We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we devote ourselves to God' (Quran 2:136)
Baghdad, Manchester, Milan, Mosul, Rafah, Tampa — too many cities to list. Ramadan should provide relief from the oppression of fear; it is designed to allow people to strengthen their better selves. Combatants, criminals and sociopaths who happen to be Muslim and are practicing the fast should take advantage of this monthlong adjournment from violence. It would be a global matter worth great attention if this Ramadan became a monthlong version of the Christmas Truce of 1914.