Ramadan 2019: Why millions of Muslims fast

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and was prescribed to Muslims in the second year of the Hijri calendar

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., June 2, 2018.  Iftar at thr Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  National
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The five pillars of Islam

1. Fasting

2. Prayer

3. Hajj

4. Shahada

5. Zakat

Throughout the holy month, The National will bring you tales from across the UAE about Ramadan and what it means to the people who live here: from its importance as a foundation of Islam and how it was observed in the past, to how it affects people’s lives today.

Starting Monday, and for the next month, millions of Muslims will abstain from eating or drinking from dawn until the sun sets.

As they fast, they will be performing one of the central elements of Ramadan and fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam.

These mandatory pillars comprise the basic tenets of Islam and are considered the foundation of life for Muslims. Along with fasting, these pillars include prayer, giving alms or zakat, performing Hajj and the shahada — a declaration of faith when a Muslim professes that is there is only one God (Allah) and Prophet Mohammed is his messenger.

Although fasting takes centre stage during Ramadan, it is not exclusive to the holy month. Many devout Muslims choose to fast each Monday and Thursday, as the Prophet recommended, and on Arafat Day before Eid Al Adha.

But fasting is not all that is expected of Muslims during Ramadan. Devotees must also be extra careful not to commit any sins during the holy month, including lying or swearing. Increased piety, tolerance and patience are also key to a successful Ramadan of which the objective is effective self-discipline — where God’s orders are obeyed even when no one is watching.

By abstaining from eating all day, Muslims who are able to fast come to understand and empathise with the less fortunate.

"When people feel the hunger of their empty stomachs, they remember their less-fortunate brothers and offer them what they can to make them happy," said Dr Ahmed Al Haddad, the Grand Mufti of Dubai.

“Fasting is also healthy and increases well-being, as one organises their food and drink.”

From the perspective of faith, he said, fasting also draws people closer to God.

“The goal of fasting is to protect the self against disobeying God and against following desires blindly,” said another preacher, who preferred not to be named.

“Because the more you grant the self its desires, the more it will want regardless of the damage its desires might cause.”

The notion of fasting was ­revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in a Quranic verse during the second year of the Hijri calendar – the year the Prophet moved from Makkah to Madinah.

"Oh you who believe! Prescribed for you is the Fast, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may deserve God's protection (against the temptations of your carnal soul) and attain piety," the Quran reads.

From then on, fasting during Ramadan was made mandatory for all Muslims – except in certain circumstances.

Fasting also brings out the good in people, as they gather to do good deeds, be kind to the poor, and meet their family members.

Exemption from fasting extends to Muslims who are sick or travelling a long distance. Women are not to fast while they are menstruating and Muslims who have not yet reached puberty are not expected to fast either.

The religious benefits for fasting are said to be vast. The Prophet is believed to have said, “whoever fasts Ramadan with good faith and expecting God’s reward, will have their sins of the year before and the year erased”.

Dr Al Haddad said fasting is also a great benefit to society.

“It unifies Muslims all around the world to fast during this one month,” he said.

While fasting, Muslims are said to feel the unity of the Ummah (community), as they share a purely religious practice away from politics and nationalism.

"Fasting also brings out the good in people, as they gather to do good deeds, be kind to the poor and meet their family members," the Grand Mufti said.

As Ramadan approaches, Muslims prepare themselves for the taxing month ahead.

These preparations range from stocking up on traditional food that will be prepared and served for iftar – the meal Muslims have around sunset to break their fast – to spiritual and psychological training.

Dr Hanadi Al Jaber, a family counsellor and life coach, readies herself and her children for Ramadan by carrying out family traditions.

“Since my daughter, 18, and son, 13, were very young I used to carry out a few practices to add excitement to the holy month,” she said.

"For instance, I give them some money so they could choose and buy Ramadan decorations and colourful props themselves. Then we set it up and hang it together [...] so they will get in the mood for Ramadan."

She also involves her children in choosing the iftar menu.

“I ask each one of them what they are craving and what kind of sweets they would like to have. When they are older, they will learn about being healthy and saving food, but when they are young we need to make ­Ramadan cheerful for them.

“I also allow them to invite their school friends for iftar whenever they like and I cook them whatever their heart ­desires.”

Dr Al Jaber is able to find ways to motivate her children to commit to worship during the holy month.

“I buy my son a new dishdash, so he can wear it to the mosque, and my daughter new prayer clothes.”

They print prayers on small pieces of paper to store in a box that is kept on their iftar table and, each day, one of them picks one at random to read.

She also encourages parents to pray Maghrib – the sunset prayer that concludes the day's fast – with their children as a group.

“We make it a fun activity; once we are done with the prayers we all run to the table and announce ‘attack’,” she said.

“Those small things make children attached to the holy month, and they will grow up loving Ramadan and fasting.”

The five pillars of Islam

1. Fasting

2. Prayer

3. Hajj

4. Shahada

5. Zakat