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What is Ramadan? (Thirsty is the Hardest Part)
August 12th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

What is Ramadan? (Thirsty is the Hardest Part)

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

In the religious literacy quiz I have given my Boston University students on the first day of the semester over the last few years, I always ask, “What is Ramadan?  And in what religion is it celebrated?”

Of the students who took this quiz, 61 percent knew this holiday, which began yesterday for Sunnis and today for Shias, was Islamic, but only 38 percent knew it was a fast.

During Ramadan, which falls during the ninth month of the Islamic year, observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex.  This holiday commemorates the period when Muhammad is said to have received the first recitations of the Quran from Allah via the angel Gabriel.

This year, Minnesota Vikings safety Husain Abdullah and his brother Hamza Abdullah of the Arizona Cardinals are observing Ramadan during a rough month of NFL training camp.

A significant minority of NBA basketball players are also observant Muslims, and the decisions of Hakeen Olajuwon, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and others to observe this fast have called public attention to Ramadan, just as Sandy Koufax’s decision, as a Jew, not to pitch in a 1965 World Series game on Yom Kippur called public attention to that Jewish Day of Atonement.

I spoke this week with Zeenat Rahman about common misconceptions about Ramadan. Rahman, a Muslim American who serves as Director of Policy at the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, says there are a few. First, Muslims do not fast for a whole month. If you did that, Rahman observes, “you would be dead.” Muslims fast instead from sunrise to sunset.

Second, the hardest part about the fast isn’t abstaining from eating but abstaining from drinking.  “My biggest fear is being thirsty,” Rahman says, “and the fact that you can’t drink water is really, really difficult.” Finally, fasting at Ramadan extends not only to food and water but to just about everything else you might put into your mouth, including gum and breath mints.

For Rahman, however, the “Ramadan mindset” isn’t really about food and drink prohibitions. A bit like Lent in the Christian calendar, this holiest month in the Islamic year provides an opportunity to “reset” yourself, to call yourself back to the things that really matter, including remembering and caring for the poor.

Ramadan is in some respects harder to practice in the United States, where restaurants do not stay open all night in most places and you might need to explain to your business associates why you aren’t eating anything at a lunch meeting.

According to Rahman, however, observing Ramadan in religiously plural America also offers unique benefits, including iftars (evening meals breaking the day's fast) hosted by a variety of different religious and civic groups.

For example, “Iftar in the Synagogue” brings together Jews and Muslims in Chicago for “an evening of what both traditions do best: eating, praying, discussing and schmoozing."

Ramadan ends with Eid ul Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast. It is now something of a tradition for U.S. presidents to send greetings to Muslims and to host dinners at the White House on Eid ul Fitr.

Last year at the conclusion of Ramadan, President Obama issued this holiday greeting and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton posted a video message on the State Department website wishing Muslims "Eid Mubarak."

“All faiths,” she said, “have a home here in the United States.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Holidays • Islam • Muslim

soundoff (123 Responses)
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    November 25, 2013 at 5:22 am |
  2. Mc

    remove an apple tree from Saudi and plant it in Eygpt it produces the same apple fruit. your actions reveais what you believe in

    September 3, 2010 at 8:12 pm |
  3. mohamed

    check this out http://www.rasoulallah.net/

    August 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  4. TheRationale

    When the upholders of this tradition are scared of it, that tells you that it's a bad idea. You shouldn't even need to be told that it's a bad idea to abstain from at least drinking water all day. Just because it's religious doesn't mean that it's somehow absolved from being a bad idea.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  5. Dhulfiqar

    Stephen,

    Is Merlin Swartz still teaching at BU? Best professor at BU....

    August 19, 2010 at 10:29 am |
  6. Kristen

    Reality-do you really believe that the hate you spew is going to change anyone's mind? Faith is about more than not eating for a proscribed time (whether Ramadan or Lent or Yom Kippur) it is about prayer and recognizing the sacrifice of others. I know that you come to these posts so that you can hear other hate spewing people and feel that you are in the majority. But you are not. People of faith out number atheists by a large majority. Why don't you go find a different place to spew hate. I would suggest a Tea Party rally but they are dominated by the Religous Right and won't take you. Maybe Richard Dawkins needs a pool boy.

    August 19, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  7. Peanut

    I think there are some things I need to point out. I am married to a Muslim man who is a diabetic. He CAN'T fast- it will quite literally kill him. If he were in Iran where the insanely strict Muslims are- he would be killed for disobeying the instructions of the Quran. However, in the more modern Muslim sects he is allowed to eat during the month. We send money to his home country of Bangladesh to provide food to the poor as a way of balancing the issue. Most of the Muslim world doesn't think like this though. I think the whole month is just a way to control people- people that are too weak to fight back because they are too weak from not eating.

    August 18, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  8. Nabi

    please check out islamicsolutions.com

    August 15, 2010 at 5:40 am |
  9. Nabi

    please check out http://www.islamicsolutions.com/islam-a-quick-introduction/

    August 15, 2010 at 5:39 am |
  10. Peace on Earth

    It seems that some people have nothing better to do than bash each other and each others ideas and beliefs. Do we all live on the same planet? Why do we act, behave and speak and communicate with such hatred towards one another. Hatred breeds hatred. We are all one human race.

    Wherever the violence and aggression may come from we as humans with a heart and mind to think should dislike and oppose it it for the reason that it causes anguish and hate and harm.

    Who do we think is benefitting from our harsh words and hate?

    It is when humans fail to behave as human beings rather than animals that we will get such hatred and violence.

    It does not matter what you believe, but looking to create and spread anger and hate is not the answer. Whether it be by those who commiitted atrocities on 9/11, or in Okhlahoma bombings or in Hiroshima.

    Please grow up and stop being selfish and look into hearts before you decide to put anyone else down. What have you done to help understand others?

    Ramadan is a time to give up things which nourish and satisfy the body such as food and drink so that we learn not to abuse our bodies, but learn to take care of them. It is also a time to nourish the soul. To understand and develop a realtionship with the Creator and Created. To understand our role and position as humans in the world environment and our duties as humans to help those who are in an unfortunate circumstances and in need and help.

    Please open your eyes. Do not demean one another.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
  11. Brunoux

    ...And I thought all this time that Ramadan was a motel chain.

    August 13, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
  12. Ykcyc

    So much for free speach, freedom of expression, etc. At least I won't get stoned to death. Religion is all about control.

    August 13, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
  13. vman

    I wish you could all see the similarities in religions instead of the differences. If you could see these religions from that perspective you could see how religions connect us and not divide us. Religion is an answer to our most ancient questions. The point is not the answer, but the fact that we are all asking the same questions. I wish people would start accepting that religion itself will not divide us, its the forces behind religion or in the name of the religion that want us to be divided. These forces do not want us to see each other as friends, brothers, sisters. These forces want us to see each other as enemies, and use religion as tool to achieve that. Please open your minds, and understand: We are all looking for the same things, we are all one. We can be only defeated if we let Hate into our hearts. One

    August 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  14. Universe

    Who created god ?

    August 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  15. vman

    I wish you could all see the similarities in religions instead of the differences. If you could see these religions from that perspective you could see how religions connect us and not divide us. Religion is an answer to our most ancient questions. The point is not the answer, but the fact that we are all asking the same questions. I wish people would start accepting that religion itself will not divide us, its the forces behind religion or in the name of the religion that want us to be divided. These forces do not want us to see each other as friend, brothers, sisters. These forces want us to see each other as enemies, and use religion as tool to achieve that. Please open your minds, and understand: We are all looking for the same things, we are all one. We can be only defeated if we let Hate into our hearts. One

    August 13, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  16. stevie68a

    Don't people get trampled to death while visiting mecca.? Where is this supposed god then. Just plain nonsense!

    August 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  17. stevie68a

    All religion is a lie....it is there to control people. It is trickery, superstition, and shame. The only real god there is, is the
    connectedness of all human beings. We are ONE. That "one" is the supreme being......
    mohammed, jesus, etc., are like Santa Claus for adults.

    August 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  18. acmed Shams

    Please, friends, learn about how brutal the Taliban really are. This video is not lie:
    Please, you MUST see this:
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9aw6Cnw0hY&w=640&h=360]

    August 13, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.