Ramadan (pronounced “rom-a-don“; a.k.a. Ramadhan) is the holiest period in the Islamic year. It commemorates the ninth lunar month in the year 610 CE when revelations began from God, via archangel Gabriel, to the Prophet Muhammad. These revelations in Arabic were memorized by prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), passed on orally, and later written down as the Qur’an.
During this month, Muslims believe that the gates of Heaven are open, the gates of Hell are closed, and devils are chained up in Hell so they cannot tempt believers on Earth. Muslims believe that because this month has been blessed by Allah, any good actions during Ramadan will bring them a greater reward
During this month, almost all Muslims over the age of 12 are expected to “abstain from food, drink and other sensual pleasures” including smoking, gambling, taking oral medications, etc. The fast extends from the first light of dawn until sunset. 1 This is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam.
Since the timing of Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar, it starts about ten or eleven days earlier each year according to the Gregorian Calendar. During the early 2010’s, it is occurring during summertime when the days are longest. It is particularly onerous for many individuals.
Muslims may opt-out of observing Ramadan for health reasons. The Qur’an states:
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint…Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting …” Surah Al-Baqarah Chapter 2, verses 183-185.
The purposes, discipline, activities and health concerns of Ramadan:
“The fast is performed to learn discipline, self-restraint and generosity, while obeying God’s commandments. Fasting (along with the declaration of faith, daily prayers, charity, and pilgrimage to Mecca) is one of the ‘five pillars’ of Islam.” 2 However, Muslims who fall within one of the following categories may elect to not observe the fast:
- Children under the age of puberty.
- People who are mentally incapacitated or not responsible for their actions.
- The elderly.
- The sick.
- Travelers who are on journeys of more than about fifty miles.
- Pregnant women and nursing mothers.
- Women who are menstruating.
Young children are encouraged to fast as much as they are able. 2
A full daytime fast can be very stressful for many people. Professor Saghir Akhtar has written an online essay for the BBC with health and diet advice during Ramadan. 3
Dr. Asim Padela, a Muslim and an emergency room physician at the University of Chicago Hospital, suggests that Muslims with health concerns should consult with their doctors and religious leaders to decide if they can safely fast. He said that because of the temperature and length of daylight:
“It is going to be difficult this year  for many people, at least in this part of the world. … There’s a very granular level discussion that needs to occur at the level of what the patient’s circumstances are, what their illness is, what their comorbidities (existing conditions) are and what their body, their physiology can tolerate and not tolerate.”
Dr. Michael Finkelstein. an associate medical officer at Toronto Public Health, says that people who are fasting need to make sure they drink enough fluids during the hours when the sun is down, and need to keep dehydration in mind. He said:
“July is a pretty hot month here. So they need to be aware of the early signs and symptoms of dehydration. Things like dizziness, light-headedness, headaches, intense tiredness, dry mouths and obviously the colour of their urine can get quite dark — those are indications that their fluid balance is in trouble. So if there are things that need to be done that don’t have to be done during the middle of the day, try to move those to times during the day when it’s cooler — early evening or early in the day so that you can avoid stressing your body at the height of the heat of the day.” 7
Those who are temporarily unable to fast are expected to make up the missed days at another time. Alternately, they can pay “fidyah” (compensation) which involves a monetary donation of about $10.00 per day to feed the poor.
Muslims may engage in a number of religious activities during Ramadan:
- Some read the entire Qur’an.
- Taraweeh prayers (a.k.a. the night prayers) are said every evening during Ramadan in addition to the normal five prayers recited each day of the year.
- Some of the Muslims spend their entire night praying to Allah. 4
- Muhammad observed Al-I’etikaaf (retreat) during the last ten days of Ramadan. Some contemporary Muslims do the same by staying in the mosque over a number of days. They store provisions in a corner of the mosque, and engage in spiritual pursuits, such as prayer, recitation of the Qur’an, glorification of Allah, studying the Hadith, etc. 5
- “During the entire month of Ramadan the Lailatul Qadr is the most special night for all the Muslims who fast. It is believed that Lailatul Qadr night falls during the last 10 days of Ramadan during the odd days like 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th. But many Muslims believe this “night of power” to be on 27th as it was originally on that day.” 4 This night is believed to be when Muhammad first received the Qur’an.
How non-Muslims can help during Ramadan:
Companies, schools, hospitals, etc. can help their Muslim employees, students and patients during the fast of Ramadan in a number of ways:
- Since the employees are on a fast, they might find it more difficult to handle strenuous tasks. Assignment of lighter duties in some cases would undoubtedly be deeply appreciated by Muslim employees. School administrator might allow Muslim students to be exempted from sports and exercise events.
- “Special consideration can be given to such things as requests for vacation time, the need for flexible early morning or evening work schedules and lighter homework assignments.” For example, working the day shift during Ramadan would enable the employee to break their fast in the evening with their families, and to attend evening prayers.
- “It is also very important that Muslim workers and students be given time to attend Eid prayers at the end of Ramadan. Eid is as important to Muslims as Christmas and Yom Kippur are to Christians and Jews.“
- “Hospital workers should be aware that injections and oral medications might break the fast. Patients should be given the opportunity to decide whether or not their condition exempts them from fasting.” 2
A small token such as an Eid card or baked goods given to a Muslim co-worker or friend during Eid ul-Fitr may also be greatly appreciated. These cards cards are available from Muslim bookstores, or can be sent from online sources. 6
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- “Muslim Fast of Ramadan Begins November 17,” Council on American-Islamic Relations, at: http://www.cair-net.org/
- “Muslim Fast of Ramadan Begins November 17: Fast offers opportunity to learn more about Islam and Muslims,” Council on American-Islamic Relations, at: http://www.cair-het.org/ (requires Microsoft WORD program.
- Saghir Akhtar, “Health Advice,” BBC Religion & Ethics, 2005-SEP-30, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/
- “How long does Ramadan Last,” Dgreetings, at: http://theeid.dgreetings.com/
- “Retreat,” Contact Pakistan, at: http://www.contactpakistan.com/
- About.com has a page of links to web sites that offer free virtual Eid greeting cards. See: http://islam.about.com/