Once a year, Muslims worldwide observe the holy month of Ramadan through prayer and fasting.
To some, this might just seem like a period of strict self-discipline, but to me, Ramadan is a much-needed time to reflect and reset myself. It’s a chance to slow down and be more conscious of everything I do. It allows me to be thankful of how privileged I am and to remember those who haven’t been as fortunate.
Ramadan is the name of a month in the Islamic calendar – just like August, September, October, etc. in the Gregorian calendar. But since the Islamic calendar is based on the moon, the holiday doesn’t begin on the same day every year.
Muslims believe that the month of Ramadan is when God first revealed the message of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. To commemorate this event, we spend time reflecting on the past year, spiritually connecting to God, and spending time in acts of social service.
In addition to this spiritual cleansing, we also physically cleanse our bodies through fasting.
Ramadan lasts for 29-30 days, ending with a day of celebration called Eid ul-Fitr. Throughout the month, family and friends get together after sundown to eat and spend time connecting to God. There is simply no way to overstate the importance of Ramadan in the Islamic community.
Some Fasting Facts
One of the biggest misconceptions about Ramadan is that it’s just a time when Muslims starve themselves for a month. I don’t think many people truly understand the purpose, meaning, and culture behind fasting, so I’d like to take a moment to describe why it’s important to me.
Fasting is a way to cleanse your body – to rest, reflect, and restart. In addition to not eating or drinking during the day, Muslims also abstain from smoking, sexual activity, getting angry, speaking ill of others, etc. It’s a time to focus on your actions and connect spiritually.
The grumbling in my stomach alerts me to be mindful of my behavior. If I get angry or lose my temper, my fast is broken. I have to learn to be patient and kind, and to assume the best in others. It is also a time to remember the privilege and opportunities I have that many individuals around the world don’t.
Food and water are easily accessible to me, and fasting helps me remember how easy it is to take those things for granted.
Fasting starts at sunrise. Most people get up early to enjoy suhoor, the pre-sunrise meal, and I have wonderful childhood memories of my dad preparing oatmeal and hot chocolate or scrambled eggs with diced dates for me and my sister.
Iftar – The Nighttime “Breakfast”
Every day at sunset, we break our fast with a meal called iftar. Friends and family meet up at restaurants or each other’s home and often stay up late into the evening in conversation, prayer, or just good company.
I grew up breaking my fast with warm tea and – my favorite – Medjool dates.
Dates are especially important in the Muslim world. They’re said to have been a favorite of the Prophet Muhammad, and the palm tree is mentioned in the Qur’an 22 times.
Dates can be eaten on their own, coated in shaved coconut, or stuffed with walnuts or almonds. Date-stuffed cookies called maamool are my favorite, though they are hard to find in the States.
We would also serve flat bread, walnuts, and feta cheese with dates, which makes for a delicious mini wrap that I still crave year-round.
When my family had guests over for iftar, there was always a date platter with walnuts, cheese, and bread, as well as some sort of hot soup. After that, the main course would usually be a few traditional Iranian dishes, such as beef or lamb kebabs and various hearty stews and rice dishes, followed by dessert, fruit, and tea.
As an adult, it can sometimes be challenging to create a hearty meal after working and fasting all day.
For the first week of Ramadan, I usually eat normal dinner portions. But after about a week, my stomach begins to shrink, and I’m no longer able to eat a standard portion size. I find myself getting full faster, so in order to stay healthy, I start paying more attention to which foods I’m eating. I often end up just eating bread, dates, and walnuts with tea for iftar if I’m breaking fast alone and tired after work.
At the End
At the end of Ramadan comes Eid ul-Fitr, a day of celebration and the first day of the new month of Shawwal. This is the biggest holiday of the year for Muslims – it marks the end of a full month of fasting and gives us a day to rejoice and celebrate.
We usually start the day by gathering for morning prayer at a local mosque, where we sometimes stay to share breakfast with the community.
My childhood mosque served a dish called haleem, which is made with bulgur wheat and meat (turkey, beef, or lamb) and has the consistency of porridge. It is cooked slowly and takes time to make, so a cook who makes good haleem is often said to be especially blessed with patience.
When I was growing up, after having breakfast at the mosque, a large group of my friends would go bowling for the day. After bowling, we’d head out to lunch at a family-owned Chinese restaurant. It’s a weird combination, but to me, this is a classic Eid celebration: prayer at the mosque, haleem for breakfast, bowling, and then Chinese food for lunch.
Reflections on Ramadan
Every year, as Ramadan draws to a close, I find myself taking inventory of myself – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I ask myself if I’ve reached the goals I set for the month and if I’ve created any change within. Sometimes I feel rejuvenated, like I just hit the reset button for the year.
Other years, Ramadan is a lot more challenging, and I struggle to just keep afloat with day-to-day life.
Above all else, I realize that the past month has greatly strengthened my self-discipline and my patience and compassion for others. A long day of self-control, kindness, and deprivation makes me keenly aware of how valuable those virtues are in my life year-round.
I am overcome with an urge to continue giving back to my community, to appreciate the blessings I’ve been given, and to have a really large iced latte. To me, that is the wonderful meaning of Ramadan, and I’m so pleased to be able to share my experience.