Ramadan is one of the most blessed months in the Islamic Calendar. It is a month of worship, which requires a Muslim to fast from dawn to dusk, consecutively for twenty-nine or thirty days. Every Muslim knows that fasting in Ramadan is obligatory. Some have been doing it all their life, more as a cultural byproduct of being born in a Muslim household than as an expression of religious commitment; others start at a later stage in life, perhaps after converting to Islam. What stands true for all, however, is the fear of this form of worship being "difficult to do." Below is a practical guide to how Muslims can make fasting in Ramadan both easier and more spiritually rewarding:
- Make your intention Allah's pleasure:
Fasting is not dieting! It is very important for the eventual acceptance of any act of worship to do it solely for the pleasure of Allah. If you want to fast sincerely for Him, He will make fasting easy for you during the entire month. Cleanse yourself of any desire to show off your piety during this month.
- Stock up on groceries a week in advance:
Fasting requires two major meals each day during Ramadan. Depending on your geographical location, cultural factors, and family food preferences, take a trip to the grocery store and buy all the lentils, dairy, oil, rice, meat, spices, and flour (gram and wheat) you'll need for the month. The reason for shopping beforehand is that time and energy is not wasted in shopping for these necessities during Ramadan.
- Prepare your family:
This can be done by sitting at the dining table and reading out relevant educational material (from Islamic books) about the virtues of Ramadan, and what every Muslim should or should not do whilst fasting. For example, lying, backbiting and wasting time in frivolous activities are not allowed while fasting. A class held like this will serve as a reminder for everyone. Acquire a printed timetable of dawn and sunset timings in your area for the entire month. Local mosques usually distribute these a few days before the first fast.
- Retire early at night throughout Ramadan:
In order to wake up for Suhoor - the pre-dawn meal before the Fajr prayer every day - the entire family should go to bed early during Ramadan. Television viewing and unnecessary outdoor entertainment should be minimized. The whole family should instead go straight to bed after returning from the daily night prayers (explained below) at the mosque.
- Wake up 2 hours before Fajr (pre-dawn) prayer:
For the mother in the house, this applies especially. The rest of the family should chip in, too. It's recommended to wake up early to perform at least two units of night prayer before helping Mama set the table for Suhoor. The family should start eating at least 45 minutes before dawn, and should stop eating five minutes before dawn breaks. The last few minutes should be spent in rinsing the mouth and performing ablution in preparation for Fajr prayer.
Some Muslims automatically start eating even more when the end of Suhoor approaches - thinking, "this is my last chance to get as much food into myself as I can, before having to starve till sunset". The wise and moderate Muslims, however, know that fasting is not akin to starving the body. They maintain a moderation in eating Suhoor.
Other Muslims skip Suhoor altogether, since it necessitates waking up in the wee hours of the morning. They prefer to eat till well after midnight and sleep late, opting to relinquish Suhoor. This course of action is also not recommended. The best option is to sleep early after `Isha prayer, and awaken 2 hours before dawn, to get in some units of the night prayer (Qiyaam Al-Layl) in addition to a nutritious Suhoor meal.
- Spend the time from morning to afternoon going about your normal daily routine:
Some people assume that since they can not eat or drink till sunset, they should "sleep off" the fast and awaken only a few hours before the evening meal. They draw their curtains, pull their comforters over their heads, put on the air conditioner, and sleep till the evening. These people stay awake the whole night (the time for eating and drinking during Ramadan), with relatives and friends, eating and chatting non-stop. After the pre-dawn prayer - Fajr - they dive back into their beds. This is not the aim or spirit of Ramadan. Fasting does not curb energy for productive work, except in the last two hours of the fast. It is encouraged to work or study as usual till 2 or 3 hours before sunset. After the second prayer of the day - Dhuhr - the fasting Muslim should lie down and rest for a while for his or her afternoon siesta.
- Recite the Qur'an as much as you can, preferrably the whole of it once, over the course of Ramadan:
Ramadan is the month in which Prophet Muhammad [Allah's peace and blessings be upon him] started receiving Revelation of the Qur'an. It is the month in which each voluntary good deed reaps the reward of an obligatory one. Therefore, it is a month in which the Muslim should try to enrich his soul with the Qur'an, which can be done in three ways:
- Reciting the Arabic text with perfect Tajweed in the state of ablution.
- Understanding its meanings by pondering on it's translation and exegesis, or attending a daily study circle of the Qur'an.
- Reciting the verses in the night prayer, which can be prayed with the last prayer of the day - `Isha - or as the tahajjud prayer a few hours before dawn.
- Prepare the Iftar or evening meal to break the fast:
This meal is the highest point of the day for every Muslim during Ramadan! Spirits are high and there is chirpy chatter throughout Muslim neighborhoods as people hustle and bustle about preparing their favorite foods for Iftar. This meal, unfortunately, is also the cause of most of the excess and extravagance that takes place during this month. Here is how:
People spend the last few minutes before sunset - the time for earnest du'a or prayers - in laying the table and putting fresh food on their platters. The last few minutes are witness to the maximum hunger and thirst that a fasting Muslim experiences for the sake of His Creator; therefore, Allah is the most attentive and loving towards him or her at this time. Supplications made in earnest in these few minutes are accepted by Allah. Most Muslims forego this chance by chatting and talking at the table, while the women spend it in the kitchen, frying the last few fritters or pakoras.
After eating Iftar, Muslims neglect praying the fourth prayer of the day - maghrib. It is permissible to delay it for a few minutes to break the fast, but one should rush to offer it as soon as one's hunger and thirst are quenched. The best way to do that is to break the fast in the state of ablution by eating one, three or five dates with a glass of water, then rinsing the mouth, doing siwak, and offering maghrib prayers with a light stomach and a thankful, attentive heart. After prayers, one can return to the table to eat in moderation. This course of action prevents the hungry fasting person from overeating as soon as the fast breaks.
In stark contrast, most families focus on piling their plates high with fried food beforehand and waiting to gorge on it as soon as the sun sets. They continue eating and chatting till half an hour or so, following the fried food items with a heavy dinner, tea and dessert. The result is a full belly and a heavy-headedness that takes away the concentration from their night prayers. I cringe to point out how disgusting belches break the soothing effect of the night prayer because people have overeaten at Iftar.
Iftar parties: There is a trend among some Muslims to host huge Iftar parties intermittently during this month. Some people invite several families at a time, preparing lavish spreads for their guests. A lot of food is seen going to waste, as the guests forego praying maghrib and `Isha after breaking the fast, and enjoy themselves by eating and drinking amid live music and free mixing. This goes against the intended spirit of Ramadan. Whilst it is highly recommended to distribute food to break other people's fast, including one's neighbors, relatives and especially the poor and needy, one should strive to ensure that preparation and distribution of this food does not adversely affect one's schedule of worship.
Ramadan is the month in which one should give as much sadaqah or charity as one can. It is better to give smaller amounts of money, clothes or food regularly throughout Ramadan, than to give a very big amount just once or twice. Most Muslims choose to discharge their yearly obligatory charity - Zakaah - during Ramadan.
- Pray regular Qiyaam Al-Layl or the Night prayer:
A portion of the nights of Ramadan are to be spent in devoted, supererogatory Islamic prayer or salaah. This can be done in congregation after the `Isha prayer, by praying Taraweeh behind an imam, especially by those men and women who cannot recite the Qur'an very well. The better option, though, is to pray this prayer alone, a couple of hours before dawn (in the wee hours of the morning), by reciting as much of the Qur'an as one remembers by heart, in prayer; it is at this time that one can fully concentrate in prayer, and when Allah is the most attentive and forgiving towards His slaves. Muslims should, therefore, use this time at night to earnestly ask Allah for forgiveness for their sins.
- Conserve energy for the last ten days of Ramadan:
It is observed that most Muslims start off the month of Ramadan with zealous worship, but lose steam after 2 weeks or so. They pressurize those giving a daily Qur'an lesson or the imam's leading night prayers, to finish off the Qur'an before the last week of Ramadan. This is because in those last few days, they want to rest more, prepare for the coming `Eid festival/holiday, shop for clothes and shoes, and catch flights to spend `Eid with relatives in other places. Most people spend the last three nights of Ramadan fervently shopping for `Eid.
The correct course of action, though, is to perform worship in moderation during the first 20 days of Ramadan, and to build up the fervour during the last 10 days. The first 2 weeks of fasting settle the body very well into fasting mode: by the 15th of the month, most Muslims are well-adjusted to a fast-by-day, pray-by-night routine. The last 10 days are intended for the Muslims to increase their focus on worship, recitation and night-prayers. Shopping for `Eid is best done before Ramadan. However, since consistent fasting does take its toll on the body by the time the last ten days of the month arrive, it is better to spend a portion of these last few days sleeping or resting.
Finally, once the Muslim has fasted throughout the month of Ramadan, he or she should pray that Allah accepts all their acts of worship performed therein. It is Allah's blessing that every year, He brings Ramadan upon us and thereby, gives us a chance to refurbish our faith and renew our desire to perform good deeds. It's no wonder, then, that Ramadan is termed as the "spring season" of the Islamic calendar!