how is it fair that modern marathons & rigorous dieting and exercise for
health are multibillion-pound industries but Ramadan is cruel? Ramadan starts a
spiritual cycle in which we draw closer to God and family.
(the writer, Professor John Esposito is the director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin
Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University,
Ramadan starts a spiritual cycle in which we draw closer to God and family:
If prayer five times a day strikes some as demanding, how about no food, no
drink, no smoking, and no sex — from dawn to dusk for a whole month?
Inspiring, awesome, or extreme? In our secular, materialistic world, some see
such religious abstinence as extreme or even harmful. Yet we live in a society
in which rigorous dieting and exercise for health are multibillion-pound
Similarly, gruelling marathons and triathlons or 12-to-18-hour professional
workdays are often lauded and justified with the modern mantra of “No pain, no
For Muslims the month-long daytime fast of Ramadan, which is just beginning, is
a special time set aside to remember God through physical and spiritual
discipline: abstinence, devoting more time and attention to prayer and
reflection on human frailty and dependence on God, performing good works for the
poor and less fortunate.
It might seem curious in the context of fasting to speak of celebration and joy
rather than suffering and endurance, but many Muslims look forward to Ramadan.
Even many who are not particularly religiously observant in the rest of the year
choose to observe this communal fast. It is a time for family and communal
gathering, a time to go “home” to share the experience. Every night family and
friends come together to share a “breakfast” at dusk. Ramadan’s fasting from
sunrise to sunset, followed by a breaking of the fast, evening celebrations in
which families, friends and neighbours come together to enjoy very generous
meals, special desserts and socialising late into the night.
Many go to a mosque to participate in the discipline of reciting the Koran, read
in its entirety during this special month.
When my wife and I first travelled in the Muslim world in the early 1970s I was
struck by a scroll or wall hanging that I purchased in Damascus, depicting the
chapters of the entire Koran divided into 30 sections. I was surprised to learn
that it reflected the Ramadan practice of reciting a different Koranic section
each night. Koranic recitation (the word Koran means recitation) is meant to
transform the person reciting — just as it transformed Muhammad from a Meccan
businessman to the Prophet of a major world faith. As the Koran says, “This
Koran has been sent down by the Lord of the Worlds: The trusted Spirit brought
it down upon your heart” (26: 194).
The month of Ramadan is also the time when Muslims fulfil another pillar of
Islam, almsgiving (zakat), the pillar that, as the saying goes, gains Muslims
entrance to heaven.
Social justice, a concern for the poor, orphans and widows, and family members
is a major Koranic theme. The Koran specifically condemns those who say people
are meant to be poor and should be left to their own fate because God wills it.
Like tithing in Christianity, Islam requires its followers to help less
fortunate members of the community, but unlike tithing, which is based upon a
percentage of one’s income, zakat is a wealth tax, requiring one to give 2.5 per
cent of all liquid assets each year.
Zakat is not viewed as voluntary or as charity. In Islam, the true owner of
things is not man but God; zakat is a required sharing of the wealth that one
has received as a trust from God.
But how does zakat play out practically. Many give their zakat to less fortunate
family members or those in their community. Others, often those with
considerable wealth, distribute their zakat more broadly for philanthropic
projects like the building of mosques, libraries, clinics, locally and
internationally, scholarships for students, assistance for medical care and
Thus, it is not uncommon for Muslim fundraisers to approach wealthy Muslims at
home and overseas during Ramadan for financial support for their projects.
Ramadan ends with one of the two major Islamic feasts (Eids), the Festival of
Breaking the Fast, Eid al-Fitr. Relatives often come from far and wide to visit
and celebrate together for several days or even weeks. The celebration resembles
Christmas or Chanukah in its religious joyfulness, special celebrations and
For many Muslims, the religious experience and joy of Ramadan continues with the
opportunity during the following month of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage or Hajj to
Mecca. At least once, every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able
is required to make to make this pilgrimage, becoming a pilgrim totally at God’s
Just as Muslims are united five times each day as they face Mecca in worship,
each year believers make the physical journey to this spiritual centre of Islam,
where they again experience the unity, breadth and diversity of the Islamic
In the 21st century almost 2 million Muslims gather annually from every part of
the globe in Saudi Arabia for the hajj. The pilgrimage ends with the celebration
of the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha). The “great feast” commemorates God’s
testing of Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail (in the Jewish
and Christian traditions it is Isaac who is put at risk) and final permission to
Abraham to substitute a ram for his son.
Across the Muslim world, Muslims follow the drama of the rituals of the hajj,
which ends with the three-day Feast of Sacrifice.
Ramadan then is not only the beginning of a month-long fast but of a special
spiritual cycle of months within which those who participate have the
opportunity to draw closer to God, family and community.