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A Non-Muslim’s Guide to Understanding Ramadan

Ramadan Kareem! Ramadan Mubarak!

To all who honor the month of Ramadan, I would like to wish you a happy, healthy and blessed Ramadan! 

A little disclaimer before discussing Ramadan — I am not Muslim. I have not written this with the intention of speaking for nor over Muslims, I merely wrote this as a means to help other non-Muslims understand what Ramadan is, why it is important, how it is celebrated and more. This Ramadan will be my third Ramadan spent in a Muslim-majority country, and thus I have learned a fair bit about the ins and outs of Ramadan in not only different countries and sects of Islam, but also through the experiences of different people. I am in no way an expert on the practices of Ramadan in any sect of Islam nor country. However, I just wish to bring some clarity to a practice that many people who have not experienced it have countless misconceptions about.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Hijrī, the Islamic calendar, that lasts 30 days, and is the month that the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammed (SWT). The month of Ramadan is celebrated by Muslims around the world by fasting (abstaining from food, water, sexual encounters, listening to music and more) from the break of dawn through sunset and praying five times a day to abstain from indulgence and become closer to Allah (SWT), or God. Ramadan is also a month of charity, both in the donations of food and commodities, but also money to those in need by those who can afford to do so.

Who fasts?

Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, thus it is an obligation of all Muslims to fast. However, like most things, there are exemptions to this rule. Menstruating people, pregnant people, breastfeeding people, people with health problems, the elderly, and children, and a few more, are all exempt from fasting. If you see someone not fasting for a few days, or at all, during the month of Ramadan and you believe that they are Muslim, do not ask them why they are not fasting. They likely have a reason to not be fasting, and it is no one’s business, it is simply between them and God.

What are Iftar and Suhoor?

Iftar and Suhoor are the meals on the extreme ends of the non-fasting period during the month of Ramadan. Iftar is the meal following the sunset and typically commences with light fairs, such as enjoying pitted dates and water, then turns into a much larger meal following the prayer. Suhoor is the last meal before dawn breaks and is consequently very important. Suhoor is the meal that carries people through the long day of fasting ahead and is typically very hearty and satiating. 

How can someone that is not fasting be respectful?

Typically those who are fasting do not mind being around others who are drinking or eating during the fasting period. However, it is important to try to remember not to offer anyone who you are near that is fasting anything to eat or drink, as if they forget for a brief moment, they could break their fast and lose an entire day. Additionally to be respectful, if one is hosting a dinner party, try to schedule it so that all of the food will be served after sunset, and then all of your friends, fasting or not, may attend.

If a non-fasting person wishes to “fast in solidarity” for one or more days, many Muslims are more than happy to let you experience the fast with them. However, fasting is not for the faint of heart. Abstaining from one of these indulgences is fairly easy for most people. However, abstaining from all of these indulgences at once and starting “cold-turkey” is no joke. Personally, I have abstained from the consumption of food for the entirety of the day, but I have never stopped drinking water. It is a personal challenge, and one that I hope to conquer this Ramadan, but I will gradually work myself up to it, and gain so much more respect for all of my Muslim friends along the way.

Where can one learn more about Ramadan or Islam at large?

There are so many great sources accessible now that can help you learn more about Ramadan, as well as the upcoming Eid celebrations. Following @Muslim on Instagram is a great way to start learning about all things Islam and understand the news of or pertaining to the faith. Additionally, reading from news sources based on Muslim-majority countries can provide alternative perspectives on world issues. Personally, I follow Al Jazeera for almost all of my news needs, as well as Morocco World News to keep up with what is happening in the Maghreb.

I invite you to join me on this journey of understanding one of the most misunderstood religions in much of the Global North for the beauty and richness that it has to offer. One day the world will appreciate Islam for its beauty, but until then, we must advance one educated person at a time. 

Ramadan Kareem! Eid Mubarak!

MaryCate (she/her) is a graduate of the University of San Francisco with a BA in International Studies. MaryCate is now a Master's student at Sciences Po in Paris, France studying European Affairs and Global Health.