This is part two of my conversation with Siddique, a Muslim American man living in Long Island. The idea to talk with Siddique came about when he posted on Facebook (we’re old college radio buddies) about the beginning of Ramadan last month. I gave it some thought and realized I knew two things about Ramadan: it’s considered a holy time for Muslims and it involves fasting. That was about it. And I figured I couldn’t be alone in my lack of knowledge.
It’s kind of crazy to me that our Muslim friends and neighbors are going through a month of fasting and prayers and celebration while the rest of us go on with life as usual. I mean, the world basically stops for Christmas, but Ramadan barely gets a mention on the local news. So, thanks again Siddique for taking the time to chat with me.
Caitlin: So, what is Ramadan?
Siddique: Ramadan is a month on the Islamic calendar in which Muslims have their fasting and really take an opportunity to be closer to God, to focus in on all the tenets surrounding Ramadan and what it preaches.
It’s a period of spiritual purification, that’s the simplest way to put it. But, it’s also a period of time which ties into fasting for us to recognise that there are those around the world who have it way worse than we do.
People might be wondering why the emphasis on this month. This month is when we believe the Quran was sent down, that our prophet received the message that eventually became the Quran. Those are the last 10 nights of this month which are considered the most powerful nights of the month. It is during those 10 nights that we believe the angel Gabriel revealed the verses of the Quran to our prophet. We believe there’s one night in particular in the last 10 nights, it’s called Laylatul-Qadr – the night of destiny, that’s the night we believe those verses were sent down, and on this night we believe prayers, or anything you do is multiplied beyond what they would ordinarily be.
If you’re wondering why this random month, the holiday that ran into the month, our calendar is based on the lunar calendar, so it does shift throughout the course of the year. Right now we’re doing an 18 hour fast but there was a period of time in which there were barely 11-12 hour fasts.
Caitlin: So tell me more about the fasting.
Siddique: Fasting is actually one of the five pillars of Islam, by pillar I mean one of the five tenets of Islam: fasting, prayer, charity, pilgrimage to Mecca. With that, there is a huge component of charity. Charity goes hand in hand with understanding that around the world there are people who are suffering, going through hunger, going through poverty, and that it’s a time for us to better understand what they’re going through. That’s the most simplistic way I can put it.
Fasting is the abstinence of food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the fast period. But beyond that there are other things we’re asked to abstain from: gossiping, committing the kind of sins we may ordinarily be accustomed to, from backbiting, saying curse words.
So it’s not just ‘let me starve myself for 17 to 18 hours’ and call it a day, it’s a spiritual purification – there are physical aspects and science has proven that increment fasting is of benefit to your body and health. The spiritual aspect is abstaining from those things that you would ordinarily commit during the year to your betterment. But, then also to supplement what it is that you wish to discourage – Muslims will engage in extra prayers, they’ll read the Quran, our holy book.
Caitlin: A typical day – sunrise to sunset, you are fasting but you’re going about your day, you’re going to work, you’re going to school or whatever it is you do, so then at sunset, is there something you do every day?
Siddique: So before sunrise we do a small feast. Some people will keep it simple, they’ll just keep it to breakfast foods, others will lean on certain cultural dishes or traditions passed down from generation to generation. Some will say these are high carb meals, some will say these are high protein meals; every culture has their different blessings. The meal is called ‘istar’, which is literally the breaking of the fast.
Every culture has their own conventions as far as different meals, different delicacies that they’ll have, but the one commonality amongst Muslims, regardless of culture, is it’s advised to break the fast with a date. They are very common amongst middle-Eastern cultures and it is highly advised by Prophet Muhammad to break fast with a date. If you don’t have a date, if you’re at work, the second way that it’s advised to break your fast is just with water. Those are the two recommended ways. It is generally advised that you have a light meal, you don’t stuff your stomach, and it’s the first time you’ve eaten in 17-18 hours, so you don’t want to overload your system.
The cultural dishes tend to be fried and high calorie dishes. So as much as we talk about the health benefits, many have actually gained weight during this month. If you’re fasting for 18 hours, your body is ready to cling on to any substance that you put into your stomach, so when you’re putting in fried, sugary food that’s what your stomach’s clinging onto. Many end up gaining 5-6 pound in the month.
Caitlin: Do you tend to spend more time with your family during this month?
Siddique: Absolutely. That’s a great question. One of the core elements of Ramadan is the time you spend with your family. Granted on weekdays it’s tough, people have school, people have work, it’s considered a blessing, but on weekends that’s where you will have big family get-togethers. It’s essentially a big dinner party. Because when you have big family get-togethers during the month, food is invariably going to be involved. Whenever you’re talking about a lot of immigrants and groups that come to this country, there are two big elements: family and food.
Caitlin: You mentioned earlier that you’re waiting until fairly late to be able to start eating and then you need to be up fairly early to get that meal in before the day begins?
Siddique: I don’t blame anyone for thinking that’s a really long time, it is, but here I am talking to you from my air-conditioned office. I’m not working construction and I’m not outdoors in the Middle East. I’m in a lap of luxury right now so really the fast in and of itself is not difficult.
It’s more difficult in the beginning because for me and other people, I’m used to having 2-3 cups of coffee a day, that’s an adjustment that takes a couple of days that that overdose of coffee is not coming in the morning, and it’s not coming in the afternoon either.
I get more thirsty than hungry during the course of the day.
Just to give you an example, during the course of annoucing a game on TV or in public, I normally have a full bottle of water by my side to keep sipping on. I don’t have that luxury during Ramadan, so if it starts at 7 o’clock, I’m not breaking my fast until three quarters of the way through the game. So that’s one thing I tend to fail at a little bit more as far as fasting and how it may impact my day.
But other that personally, the day is long, but I’m in no duress or discomfort during the day. But for others, working in a factory or doing manual labour, something where you require water, I imagine it to be more difficult.
Caitlin: At what age do people start fasting for Ramadan?
Siddique: That’s a great question. Personally, I started aged 12, but it really varies. I’ve seen kids who started aged 9 and kids who don’t start until high school or towards the end of high school. If I had to give a solid age-range I would say most kids start between the ages of 10 and 12.
Caitlin: Is it a family decision, not like a hard-fast guideline?
Siddique: Yes, usually the family dictate that kind of thing. They can ask the kid if they’re ready or they feel up to it, but generally they will have their own timeline; there is no hard-fast timeline, not to my knowledge at least.
Caitlin: Is there ever an exception for people who are ill or pregnant or that sort of thing?
Siddique: Absolutely. There are exceptions, if you’re not physically capable, if a woman is pregnant, if somebody is beyond a certain age, if you’re travelling, there is a soft area. When I say travelling, this rule was made generally when people travelled on camel or walking for miles and miles on end, so it is a bit different now like if I’m travelling to New Jersey, that’s not exactly a reason not to fast. We believe that God is not going to ask something of you that you’re not physically capable of.
Caitlin: For you what’s the best part of Ramadan and is it something you look forward to?
Siddique: Other than the family dinners and get-togethers and stuff like that, I enjoy the nightly prayers. It’s something many Muslims feel is a way for them to continue to spiritually enhance the experience to bring them closer to God. In Islam there are 5 daily prayers – there’s one very early morning, 2 during the course of the day and 2 at night – 1 at sundown and one later during the night.
As far as what I enjoy most about the optional nightly prayers, I do enjoy the fact that there is a spiritual aspect. I feel I’m making the most of the Ramadan experience and there is a belief that these are activities that bring you closer to God and help you further spiritually purify yourself.
Another aspect of this month is that it is one where your prayers are enhanced. Things you want and pray for are enhanced because you are closer to god during this month. The common ones are to pray for forgiveness, the health and well-being of others, world peace, things that you want – difficulties in your family, in your own life that you’re trying to overcome. I enjoy that and the aspect of feeling closer to God.
But then there’s another aspect that I enjoy, every night of the month my friends are there, people I’ve known for years are there. It’s cool that we’ve done our prayers and are all hanging out, there’s a big courtyard in our mosque and they’ll have people serving food and tea, and the idea that on a nightly basis you’ve undergone spiritual purification, and now you’re getting to hang about, have a few laughs with your friends, the people you know, your community, that’s what I look forward to most during the month.
Caitlin: Thank you so much for chatting with me about Ramadan, and yesterday’s more general post about being Muslim in America. I really appreciate it.
Siddique: I encourage non-Muslims to ask these kind of questions, to get to know their neighbours better, because there are Muslim populations in all major cities. These are opportunities for us to break down walls, to better know another segment of the American populace, and conversely an opportunity for Muslims to get to better know their neighbours, and people who might not have an understanding of who their neighbours are.
I feel this is the kind of month that allows people to get to know each other, for some of the misunderstanding to be worked out, for there to be more dialogue, more conversation. The mere fact someone like you is asking me these questions, that media outlets around the country are asking mosques about Ramadan opens up an opportunity for dialogue, for better understanding, I feel this is the kind of thing this country needs and gives people a better understanding of what it means to be Muslim, and gives Muslims the opportunity to find out what some people’s concerns are.
People have questions and if they’re not asking the right people those questions, those questions lead to many misunderstandings and that’s not how to go about it. The way to go about it is to have a dialogue, so that you have better mutual understanding, and that’s how you forward society.
I know it’s a very small initiative, but I think it’s one of those things during this month – what is Ramadan, why do people do it and what can come of it, that that’s one small goal we can accomplish and we’ll all be better for it.
Images c/o Siddique Farooqi