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This year from the evening of June 5 to the evening of July 5 (end date may vary by one day according to moon sighting), over 1.6 billion Muslims come together to fast during the month of Ramadan. Specifics and etiquette of fasting are largely similar across many religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. However, there are some differences, as well. I wanted to take this opportunity to answer some common questions about these differences, and about Ramadan.

1) What is Ramadan actually about?

Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims – the Prophet Muhammad reportedly said, “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained.” Muslims believe it was during this month that God revealed the first verses of the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, to Muhammad, on a night known as “The Night of Power” (or Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic).

During the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast every day from the crack of dawn to sunset. It is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline – of deep contemplation of one’s relationship with God, extra prayer, increased charity and generosity, and intense study of the Quran. In simpler words, Ramadan is akin to pressing the spiritual “reset button.”

But if that makes it sound super serious and boring, it’s really not. It’s a time of celebration and joy, to be spent with loved ones. At the end of Ramadan there is a big three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr, or “the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast.” It’s kind of like the Muslim version of Christmas, in the sense that it’s a religious holiday where everyone comes together for big meals with family and friends, exchanging presents, and generally having a lovely time.

Despite the hardship of fasting for a whole month, most Muslims (myself included) actually look forward to Ramadan and are a little sad when it’s over. There’s just something really special about knowing that over a billion of your fellow Muslims around the world are experiencing the same hunger pangs, dry mouth, and dizzy spells that you are, and that we’re all in it together. The Arabic word for this community- be it on a global, national or local scale- is ummah.

2) How does fasting work?

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars – or duties – of Islam, along with the testimony of faith, prayer, charitable giving, and making pilgrimage to Mecca. All Muslims are required to take part every year, though there are special dispensations for those who are ill, pregnant or nursing, menstruating, or traveling, and for young children and the elderly.

The practice of fasting serves several spiritual and social purposes: to remind you of your human frailty and your dependence on God for sustenance, to show you what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty so you feel compassion for (and a duty to help) the poor and needy, and to reduce the distractions in life so you can more clearly focus on your relationship with God.

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating any food, drinking any liquids (meaning no water, either), smoking cigarettes, and engaging in any sexual activity, from sunrise to sundown. That includes taking medication (even if you swallow a pill dry, without drinking any water) and chewing gum. Doing any of those things “invalidates” your fast for the day, and you just start over the next day. To make up for days you didn’t fast, you can either fast later in the year (either all at once or a day here and there) or provide a meal to a needy person for each day you missed.

Muslims are also supposed to try to curb negative thoughts and emotions like jealousy and anger and lust, and even lesser things like swearing, complaining, and gossiping, during the month. Some people may also choose to give up or limit activities like listening to music and watching television, often in favor of listening to recitations of the Quran.

3) What is a typical day like during Ramadan?

During Ramadan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the first meal of the day, which has to last until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein foods and drinking as much water as possible right up until dawn, after which you can’t eat or drink anything. At dawn, we perform the morning prayer. Since it’s usually still pretty early, many go back to sleep for a bit before waking up again to get ready for the day.

Muslims are not supposed to avoid work or school or any other normal duties during the day just because we are fasting. In many Muslim countries, however, businesses and schools may reduce their hours during the day or close entirely. For the most part, though, Muslims go about their daily business as we normally would, despite not being able to eat or drink anything the whole day. This includes our five daily prayers.

When the evening call to prayer is finally made (or when the alarm on your phone’s Muslim prayer app goes off), we break the day’s fast with a meal called an iftar (literally “breakfast”), which is often shared with family and friends in one another’s homes throughout the month. Many also go to the mosque for the evening prayer, followed by a special prayer that is only recited during Ramadan. Then it’s off to bed for a few hours of sleep before it’s time to wake up and start all over again.

4) Why do the dates of Ramadan change every year?

For religious matters, Muslims follow a lunar calendar – based on the cycles of the moon – in which 12 months add up to approximately 354 days. That’s 11 days shorter than the 365 days of the standard Gregorian calendar. Therefore, the Islamic lunar calendar moves backward approximately 11 days each year in relation to the regular Gregorian calendar. Consequently, the first day of the month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, moves backward by about 11 days each year.

This has a large impact on how people experience Ramadan from year to year. When Ramadan falls in the winter, it’s much easier to fast: the days are shorter, which means you don’t have to fast as long, and it’s colder out, so not being able to drink water all day isn’t as big of a deal, because you’re not sweating as much.

Conversely, when Ramadan falls in the summer, fasting can be tough. In many Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa, summer temperatures can reach levels of 120+ degrees Fahrenheit (upwards of 50 degrees Celsius).

In some northern European countries such as Iceland, Norway, and Sweden (where, yes, there are Muslims), fasting can last an average of 20 hours or more in the summer. (And in a few places above the Arctic Circle, the sun never actually sets in the summer. In these cases, Muslim religious authorities have decreed that Muslims can either fast along with the closest Muslim country or fast along with Mecca, Saudi Arabia.)

5) What can I do to be respectful of my Muslim friends during Ramadan?

Most American Muslims, myself included, do not expect non-Muslims around us to radically change their behavior to accommodate our religious fast during Ramadan. I’ve had friends and co-workers and who have chosen to fast along with me out of solidarity (or just because it seems “fun”), and that was sweet of them, but it’s not something I ever expect people to do. (Plus, they usually last about four days before they decide solidarity is overrated and being thirsty for 15 hours is not even remotely “fun”).

That being said, there are things you can do – and not do – to make things a little easier for friends or colleagues who happen to be fasting for Ramadan. If you share an office with someone fasting, maybe eat your delicious, juicy cheeseburger in the office break room rather than at your desk, where your poor, suffering Muslim co-workers will have to smell it and salivate (if they even have enough moisture left in their bodies to salivate at that point).

Try to remember not to offer them a bite or a sip of what you’re eating, because it’s sometimes hard for us to remember that we’re fasting and easy to absentmindedly accept and eat that potato chip you just offered us. But if you do, it’s okay. We’re not going to get mad or be offended (unless you’re doing it on purpose, in which case, what is wrong with you?).

If you’re having a dinner party and you want to invite your Muslim friends, try to schedule it after sunset so they can eat. Muslims don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, but we usually don’t mind being around it. Contrary to popular belief, we are not scared of or allergic to pork; we just don’t eat it. It’s not like we’re vampires and pork is garlic. But do let us know if there’s alcohol or pork in something so we don’t accidentally eat it.

If you want to wish your Muslim friends or acquaintances a happy Ramadan, you’re welcome to just say, “Happy Ramadan!” That’s not offensive. But if you want to show them you made an effort to learn more about their religion, the standard Ramadan greetings are “Ramadan Kareem” (which means “have a generous Ramadan”) or “Ramadan Mubarak” (which means “have a blessed Ramadan”).

Even something as simple as learning one of those expressions and saying it with a smile to your Muslim friends will go a long way toward making them feel comfortable and welcome.

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