Devotional Dates: Tales from the Holy Month of Ramadan

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Ramadan is celebrated across the Muslim world during the ninth month of the lunar calendar. This year it falls May 5 through June 5. The word Ramadan comes from the Arabic “ramada,” to be hot. The month is marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, nightly prayer, abstaining from bad habits, and celebrating family and community through special meals. We asked Muslims in Tucson to share their favorite Ramadans and their own most meaningful parts of the holy day.

Aiman Arif, 25
Graduate student, University of Arizona

Ramadan has been part of my family for as long as I remember. As a kid, I would wake up before dawn with my parents for their suhoor, or pre-dawn meal, before I even started fasting myself, just to be a part of the Ramadan routine. And the preparations for Iftar, or the sunset meal when we complete our fast, were always so enjoyable for me. I’d avoid eating in between sometimes, copying my parents, even though they insisted I was too young to fast. The first time I did fast for the entire day, we had a party to celebrate, and my friends came over to all complete the fast together at sunset. It’s a special month in so many ways.

Aiman Arif, a person with medium light skin, wearing glasses, all black, and a yellow Hijab, standing in a doorway built of rocks.
Aiman Arif

I grew up in California. San Francisco has dozens of mosques and Muslims. Tucson has two mosques. For that reason, I’ve noticed that the community here is much more close-knit. Two years ago, when I came to Tucson, we literally moved in on the first day of Ramadan. I didn’t know anyone but my husband. This was overwhelming. But we went to the mosque and that slowly helped me feel a sense of community. It was a great time to move in because I got to know people right away. People were very welcoming and there was so much warmth. That helped me immensely.

Mosques all around the country offer the Iftar meal during Ramadan. Every night there are night prayers for two to three hours or sometimes longer. As Muslims, we believe the Quran was revealed during the month of Ramadan so it’s an important month to connect with the Quran, on a personal and community level. When I was eight, I finished reading the Quran from cover to cover for the first time during Ramadan. During the entire month we recite the Quran from beginning to end in night prayers at the mosque, and I also do my own personal recitation as well. During the last ten days, there are always Muslims at the mosque at all hours of the night and day, praying, and reading Quran. When we’re there for night prayers, we often all eat suhoor together at the mosque after praying and start the fast together.

I fasted my first fast when I was seven years old. For me that practice of fasting is really meaningful. It’s a reminder to how much will power we have. The Quran reminds is that the purpose of fasting is to get closer to God, and to focus on remembrance and consciousness of God in all moments of our day. Fasting reminds me that I’m doing something for a higher purpose. If I can stay away from food and drink in the daytime for a month, I can stay away from other bad habits. For example, if I’ve been struggling to eat healthy and keep a workout regimen, Ramadan teaches me that if I can do something for 30 days, how much more am I capable of doing if I put my mind to it? Or, for example, when I do eat in Ramadan, I have to be really mindful, and ask, Is this good for my body? Is this going to sustain me? And my goal is for that mindfulness and consciousness to be present in all areas of my life, especially spiritually. Am I using my time in the best way? Am I doing what I need to get closer to God? Am I able to stay away from all that distracts me and keeps me from doing good?

Sometimes, it isn’t easy going without food or water. This month so far, it’s been better, because it’s less hot as compared to last year. The days aren’t too long here in the Southwest but going without water—you definitely feel it at times!

As a student trying to fit study or work schedules around fasting schedules and staying up at night for prayer and worship, it can be difficult. But when I am fasting, I know at the end of the day I’m going to be able to eat and replenish myself. I have food in my home. But I’ve worked with underprivileged individuals and as a public health student, I know how real food insecurity is. So, for me it’s about being extra kind and compassionate towards others. If I’m feeling extra burned out or hungry on the inside, it’s a reminder that others might be feeling that way too—battling with far greater internal struggles no one may know from the outside. Although this is something we strive for all year, in Ramadan you’ll see it increasing on a whole other level with Muslims. It’s a month of giving, of community, and helping and uplifting others. In Ramadan there is a lot of focus on our broader humanity, through charity, helping others, and being more forgiving and gracious in all ways.

Kamel Didan, 54
Professor of biosystems engineering, University of Arizona
Born in Tunisia
A headshot of Kamel Didan, a person with medium skin, short dark hair, glasses, and a suit.
Kamel Didan 2017

When we were young, we would fast for part of the day, not the full day. We would collect pieces of cloth corresponding to a portion of the day, say, morning or afternoon. Then we would give those pieces to our moms so they could sew them together, and that would represent a full day. When we celebrated at the end of the month, the more cloths you had, the more you were rewarded. Usually you would get toys or money, which you could spend on toys. I came from a small village—Tozeur, Tunisia—so access to toys wasn’t as good as in big cities. Sometimes there would be a carnival in town, and we could spend the money and go on the rides, or spend it on something simple, like a sandwich or sweets.

As a child, I also remember the call for the sunset prayer during Ramadan. We kids would hang out close to the neighborhood mosque and wait for the adhan, the call to prayer. All children would sing “Call the adhan already, it is time.” And then we would run around, excited, jumping and shouting, “Time to break your fast!” throughout the neighborhood.

A Ramadan meal spread out on a dining table.
Ramadan meal. Courtesy of Kamel Didan

I remember when I was in my last year of high school, baccalaureate, we would have at the end of the year this tough exam that would go on for about a week. During my time, that test fell during the first week of Ramadan. This was in 1984. So, you had the option of breaking the fast. Because when you are fasting, you don’t have a lot of energy. A lot of kids were worried about it, because it was six days of tests, four hours each morning and four hours in some afternoons. There was a lot of pressure from friends, peers to break the fast. So, if you felt scared that you couldn’t do good in the exam, it was okay to break the fast. For me the pressure was mostly from my parents, but I said, I can do it. And I did, I felt really really proud. It’s like surmounting any obstacle in life. You have that temptation to give up, but you give it that extra push, you keep moving until you get there. It was a tough decision for me to fast. But I did and I did very well in the exam too.

Ramadan is about atonement and a time to test yourself. When you feel what the poor and the hungry feel. But it is also more than that. It’s about overpowering your desires and discovering your inner strength and that you can do it.

Lynn Hourani
Board member Islamic Center of Tucson
Born in England, converted to Islam in 1987
Lynn Hourani, a woman with light skin, a white hijab, and a dress with jagged colors of pink, purple, blue, and yellow posing in front of a door.
Lynn Hourani

I became a Muslim when I was working in London and I met a lot of people from all over the world—Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I started asking philosophical questions: What is it all about? Why are we here? I started studying religions, and when I came to Islam, I felt like I had always been a Muslim.

My first Ramadan was in England. I remember an intense extreme headache, which was the withdrawal from caffeine. That is the one headache everyone complains about. Our bodies have to purge the caffeine and other toxins. Since then I’ve been fasting Ramadan every year. It’s such a wonderful time. For me it’s a time of self-discipline and self-reflection. It’s obligatory on all Muslims who are physically able to fast, unless you are ill or traveling. It’s not meant to be a hardship, and it just takes a couple of days for the body to adjust. Then at the end, you have to re-adjust to daytime eating.

Ramadan is much more than fasting, it’s a holy spiritual month. Our rewards are considered to be amplified for our good deeds in this month. There’s a lot of giving and charity. For me, it is also a time for sitting back and thinking about where I am in my life, and what I have accomplished over the past year. I review my finances. I give the Zakat, a 2.5 percent tax on our savings, which Muslims give to the poor.

Ramadan is part of the lunar calendar, which is a little shorter than the Gregorian. So each year you start to fast 10 days earlier than the year before. In the Southwest, one thing I’ve found is that when it goes into the middle of the summer, it gets tough. When it’s 110 degrees, you have to be very careful about dehydration. You have to make sure you get up early and get hydrated and take care of yourself.

A cup and saucer of coffee and baked goods.
Courtesy of Kamel Didan

In England, I would fast through the summer, and we would hardly have any night time to do our prayers. It’s a time of extra worship. But the days were so long in the summer because of the higher latitude, we didn’t break fast until 9:30 or 10 in the evening. On flip side, in the winter it was much easier. But the beauty of the lunar year is that we get a chance to fast during every season.

What I love about Ramadan is that it’s very calm and peaceful. All the family starts to break fast at the same time with a meal called Iftar, so you prepare family meals. And in the night when we have suhoor, the last meal before we start the day fasting, everyone comes to the kitchen again. So it brings us back to those old family values of everyone gathering around the table. It slows things down and we sit and eat together. Every Ramadan I ask my kids—I have six—to write down all the meals they want me cook, because I am here for service during this time. I make Middle Eastern meals, curry dishes, English dishes. I want all this food to be a part of their memories.

Mahmoud Albagi, 25

I always look forward to Ramadan. One thing that’s really meaning for me is the togetherness that you feel with the Muslim community. Normally Muslims will go for service on Friday, just as Christians go to service on Sunday. During Ramadan, you can go every night. I go to the mosque every night for tarweeh prayer. You can talk to your close brother in Islam. You are both experiencing joy and toughness of Ramadan, it’s beautiful.

Dried fruit and nuts
Dried fruit and nuts

Muslims are a minority in America. It’s great to have diversity here and it’s also great to know you’re not alone. You get to share that experience with others. This is important during the fast. I work at a corporate job with people who are not Muslims, so they don’t always understand the struggle of fasting, which is fine, but during Ramadan, at the mosque, there’s that sense of community and togetherness that brings you closer.

I was telling my co-workers about Ramadan, and one of them said, “Why are you excited? Aren’t you going to be starving the whole day?” The reality is that the feeling I get after Ramadan is so good. You really get an appreciation for just simply eating a plate a food or going to pick up food from Taco Bell. I know not everyone can do that. For me, there’s nothing else that resembles that accomplishment. I understand, at least with a small perspective, people who don’t have the means to have a meal three times a day. I like that reminder. Which is why I try on my own to fast during the year, outside of Ramadan.

If you’re just abstaining from food and drink and just starving yourself, you’re not getting the full meaning. Ramadan is about your connection with God. That’s where the sense of community comes from. We’re all human and we all do things that aren’t good for us, so this is a good time to make those changes. It should also be the month that you break bad habits. If someone is a smoker or uses foul language, they should concentrate during this month to quit. You use this time to break a bad habit.

When we were younger, my mom didn’t want us eating a lot of candy because of cavities and because, well, a lot of sugar is bad for you. But on the last day of fasting day before Eid, (the festival of the breaking of the fast), she would set up a decorative table full of sweets. Everything from traditional sweets like baklava, and maamoul, or date cookies, to Snickers and Twix. It really made you feel like you’d accomplished something great. I still bring it up to my mom. That’s something I plan to do with my kids when I’m older.

Muslims believe the prophet Mohammad broke his fast with a date, so it’s a good tradition to follow.

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