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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Of growling stomachs and clean hearts

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Ramadan, the month of Muslim fasting which ended a few days ago, is an inspiring month

By Dr Katim S Touray

Aaah, Ramadan, the Holy month of fasting by Muslims has ended! Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic Lunar Calendar which consists of 12 lunar months and is 354 or 355 days long, in contrast to the Julian Calendar which also has 12 calendar months and is 365 or 366 days long.

Ramadan starts each year 11 days earlier than the previous year. As such, the start of Ramadan changed from August in 2010 to April in 2022, and will be January in 2030; implying huge changes in the number of hours of fasting over the years. Now that Ramadan is behind us for this year, we can look back at it with clear eyes, and full stomachs.

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Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five Pillars of Islam, and has been practiced by Muslims since the start of Islam. Indeed, the first revelation of the Quran to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, Peace and Blessings be Upon Him (PBUH) was during the month of Ramadan in 610 C.E. However, Muslims were not commanded to fast until 14 years later in 624 C.E., two years after the Hijrah, or flight by the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH and his disciples from anti-Islamist persecution in Makkah (Mecca) his birthplace, to what is present-day Madinah. Significantly also, it was during the month of Ramadan in 624 C.E. that Prophet Muhammad, PBUH led his Muslim disciples to victory in the Battle of Badr, their first battle against the pagans of Makkah.

The word “Ramadan” is derived from the Arabic root “ar-ramad” or “ramida” meaning scorching heat, or scarcity of food. Fasting during Ramadan is ordained by the Quran (2:183–185;187) for all Muslims of who have reached puberty and are physically able to observe it. Although the month of Ramadan is the main month of fasting, many Muslims also fast an optional additional six days after the end of Ramadan because Prophet Muhammad, PBUH said that doing so is equivalent to fasting the whole year.

Fasting, however, is not obligatory for everyone. Thus, pre-puberty, and elderly Muslims, as well as pregnant or breast-feeding Muslim women are exempt from fasting during the month of Ramadan. Other people exempted from fasting are the chronically ill, mensurating women, and travelers. On the other hand, travelers who had to break their fast are required to, at the end of their journey, make up for the days they did not fast while on their journey.

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Fasting during Ramadan starts before dawn after an non-obligatory pre-fast meal called suhoor in Arabic is taken. Muslims fasting are forbidden from eating, drinking, smoking, or having sexual intercourse while fasting. But fasting is much more than abstaining from physical pleasures, and stomachs growling from hunger.

Ramadan is an opportunity to turn away from worldly activities and cleanse one’s soul, and teaches Muslims to practice self-discipline, sacrifice, self-control, and empathy with the less fortunate. It’s also about clean hearts. For this reason, Muslims are encouraged to be generous and give charity (zakat) to the poor during Ramadan.

Fasting during Ramadan ends at sunset just after the call to Maghrib, the evening prayer. Fasters then have iftar, their first meal after they break their fast. Interestingly, people in floors 80 and above of the 160 habitable floors of the 828m-tall Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, have to fast an additional 2 to 3 minutes because the Sun sets later for them than those on the ground. In the same vein, Muslims living in Artic north or Antarctic south which can have a midnight Sun, or polar night advised can fast according to the timetable of Makkah, or the countries closest to them in which day can be distinguished from night.

Although Iftar is a meal that brings families together, it has been observed by huge crowds in some countries. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for example, organizes Iftar for up to 30,000 people per night in Ramadan. Similarly, the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad, Iran, which houses the largest mosque in the world, and hosts about 500 thousand visitors daily, in keeping with its 332-year tradition, holds the world’s largest Iftar for 170 thousand people.

Fasting during Ramadan provides many benefits to Muslims, starting with the fact that it is a fulfillment of one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Fasting during Ramadan is also special because, in contrast to other visible forms of worship such as praying, it is a very private act of submission to Allah’s will, and for this reason, He will “personally reward it.”

Fasting also has some health benefits, including reducing insulin resistance, improving cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, and weight. In addition, fasting reduces “bad cholesterol,” stress, anxiety, and depression. On the other hand, fasting during Ramadan can reduce birth-weights of newborns whose mothers fasted; further justification for exempting pregnant women from fasting.

Some 1.5 billion Muslims around the world fast during Ramadan. According to a 2012 study, a very high proportion (93 percent) of Muslims in 39 countries around the world said they fast during Ramadan. Indeed, fasting was the second most adhered to Pillar, after the first Pillar, the Shahada, i.e. declaring that there is no god, but Allah, and that Prophet Muhammad, PBUH is His Prophet. Southeast Asia, and South Asia had the greatest proportion of fasters, with near-universal adherence to fasting, while Central Asian and European countries had the least proportion of Muslims who fast during Ramadan.

A lot of conjecture has been made about the impact of Ramadan on athletic and work performance. Although it sounds reasonable to believe that fasting during Ramadan would adversely affect athletic performance, studies show that the impact is minor, as long as athletes maintain their intake of energy and fluids, get 8 hours of sleep per night, and continue their normal pattern of training. In the same vein, fasting during Ramadan was found to have little impact on the rate of energy consumption by the body, and amount of energy consumed per day.

On the other hand, Ramadan has been reported to have varied impact on work, businesses, and the economy. Thus, data collected over 60 years from in 167 countries with Muslims fasting showed that observance of Ramadan reduced the economic growth of Muslim countries. However, the same study showed that this decline in economic growth was accompanied by an increase in happiness and satisfaction of Muslims with their lives.

Almost half of respondents in a 2015 YouGov poll of the Middle East and North Africa said they were as productive during Ramadan as they were during the rest of the year, and 60 percent of them said their spending increased during Ramadan. This increase in spending during Ramadan is one reason why the Holy month is now considered hyper-commercialized, and even wasteful.

Wastefulness is one aspect of Ramadan culture in Senegal and The Gambia because much of the food many people share with friends, and people they hold in high esteem, ends up in dumps. This practice, called yekal in Wolof, is especially wasteful because of the additional expenses people make to cook these special dishes during Ramadan.

An important event celebrated during Ramadan is Laylat al-Qadr, the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad, PBUH. Laylat al-Qadr is especially revered by Muslims because worshiping Allah during it has more reward than worshiping Him for a thousand months. Although the exact date of Laylat al-Qadr is uncertain, it was one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10 days of Ramadan. Muslims around the world spend Laylat al-Qadr in prayer, and in The Gambia and Senegal, often in congregations which call for ample supplies of food.

Ramadan is another occasion in which Senegambians indulge in one of their favorite activities, which is teasing their “joking cousins” who may or may not be of the same ethnic group, but have different last names. Thus, people whose last names are, like mine, Touray traditionally tease those whose last names are Camara or Ceesay (Sise) because they love food too much and commit many food-related faux pas (chalit in Wolof or pisal in Mandinka).

The end of Ramadan is marked by the feast of Eid al-Fitr, which is held the day after the sighting of the crescent Moon. Muslims gather in congregational Eid prayers, followed by sumptuous lunches marking the end of the month of fasting. Kids in The Gambia and Senegal go around asking for gifts (akin to trick or treating in the United States) and show off their wardrobes. A few days ago, my son pointed out to me that the convention in The Gambia is that kids were African dresses on the first day of Eid, and on the second day, they wear Western fashion; the more American, the better!

The end of Ramadan is always welcome because people can resume a more laid-back lifestyle, including listening to music. Although the Quran does not explicitly declare music as haram (illegal), some consider it haram, especially during Ramadan, for Muslims to listen to music. What is more, some say that Prophet Muhammad, PBUH said that people who listen to music will, on the day of Judgement, be punished by pouring molten glass from Hellfire into their ears.

As someone who, as I’ve written before, loves music I listened to music while fasting in Ramadan. But would Allah have a problem with my listening to jazz, or salsa or inspiring, resistance reggae music? Would they still pour molten glass into my ears? I hope NOT!

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