For those who are unfamiliar with the Islamic tradition, Ramadan can sound like a month where Muslims get familiar with a list of do’s and don’ts. Read the Quran every day, but don’t eat while the sun is out. Pray even more during Ramadan, but don’t chew gum.
Ask someone who’s been observing Ramadan for many years, though, and this seems like an oversimplification of a complex physical and spiritual experience that benefits each individual and the community as a whole.
“It brings us into a personal piety, personal self-discipline,” said Ismail Abdul-Aleem, imam at Masjid Al Mumineen on Millersville Road. “Then on a community level, it draws us together. One-point-whatever billion Muslims today are fasting. That’s this common action, the common act of obedience that we share together.”
Right now, there are at least 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and Pew Research Center estimates that number will be 2.7 billion, or about 30% of the population, by 2050. There are about 3.5 million Muslims in America today, and Pew estimates Islam will pass Judaism by 2040 to become the country’s second largest religion, behind Christianity.
Of course, not all Muslims observe Ramadan, but many do. Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, which is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, so Ramadan comes 11 days sooner each year. Ramadan started May 5 this year and goes until June 4. Marked most famously by fasting, Ramadan also includes reading the whole Quran and being charitable.
Abdul-Aleem, a 69-year-old lifelong resident of Indianapolis, is observing his 49th Ramadan and said, contrary to popular belief outside of Islam, fasting isn’t difficult. It’s not as though Muslims don’t eat or drink for 30 days. There’s suhoor, a meal served before dawn, and iftar, a meal served after sunset.
Abdul-Aleem said he’s heard people describe Ramadan as “Christmas Eve for a month.” The Festival of Breaking the Fast, or Eid al-Fitr, is a holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Practices vary around the world, but the holiday is usually marked by family gatherings, food and giving gifts to children. Abdul-Aleem said Muslims are obligated to donate money and other resources to less fortunate people in order to help them also celebrate the holiday.
Michael Saahir, resident imam of Nur-Allah Islamic Center on East 46th Street, said fasting is something everyone, even non-Muslims, should try.
“It’s something they should try, even if they can’t do it for the whole 30 days,” Saahir said. “The spiritual benefit is outstanding. You’re learning self-restraint to please your Lord.”
For Christians thinking those benefits sound familiar, Saahir agreed Christians could get the same satisfaction out of Lent that Muslims get out of Ramadan.
Saahir knows what it’s like to not make it the whole 30 days of fasting. The first time he tried fasting in 1976, he lasted four days. After that Saahir said he surrounded himself with more people practicing the faith and successfully did it the next year. This is Saahir’s 43rd Ramadan.
“You just do it,” he said. “Someone can wake me up and say tomorrow’s Ramadan, and I’m like, OK.”
Karimah Abdullah, 14, is giving Ramadan a second run this year. Last year she tried but only made it three or four days. Younger children — along with the sick and chronically ill — aren’t expected to fast.
“It’s hard to fast,” she said.
Because the two meals come before the sun rises and after it sets, Abdullah is up later and wakes up earlier than normal. Her family wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for the morning meal. To make it even more difficult, Abdullah said she sits with her friends during lunch at Tindley Collegiate Academy, so she’s surrounded by food. She said students at her school are accepting of the practice, even if they don’t fully understand what’s happening.
Saahir and Abdul-Aleem said Indianapolis has been welcoming of Islamic traditions such as Ramadan. Abdul-Aleem said he used to go on Amos Brown’s radio show on WTLC to inform listeners about the basics of Ramadan.
“Up until probably the last 20 years or so maybe, it was pretty unknown as far as Americans and the people in this community,” he said. “But now you see Ramadan specials at the mall, you know?”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.