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All About Ramadan – What Non-Muslims Need to Know

All About Ramadan – What Non-Muslims Need to Know

The United States becomes more diverse every day, including on college campuses, where 948,519 international students studied in the United States in the 2021/22 academic year1. These students, as well as your neighbors, co-workers and friends, comprise a wide array of cultures and religions, giving you the opportunity to learn about and appreciate other belief systems and traditions.

The month of Ramadan provides one such opportunity and is the perfect time to get to know more about your Muslim friends. Of the nearly 8 billion people on the planet, approximately one quarter are Muslims, so chances are you know someone who practices the Islamic faith. Rather than be intimidated by their customs and beliefs, or worrying about being insensitive, take this occasion to learn all about Ramadan so you can engage knowledgeably and compassionately with Muslims you know.

What is Ramadan?

Most everyone has heard the term, but many remain confused about what Ramadan actually is and why it is observed. Here are the basics:

  • Ramadan is considered the holiest month of Islam and is a core part of the Muslim faith.
  • It lasts for 30 days, beginning when the new crescent moon can first be seen during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
  • It varies each year based on the lunar calendar, which is shorter than the Gregorian calendar. That’s why Ramadan begins 10-12 days earlier each year. This year (2023), Ramadan began on March 22 and will end on April 20.
  • During Ramadan, Muslims fast as a form of devotion to Allah, and they commemorate the “Night of Power” (when Allah revealed the Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad) sometime during the last 10 nights.
  • According to the Qur’an, the gates of heaven are opened when Ramadan starts, and the devil(s) are chained throughout the holy month. Because of this, committing sins during this month is considered more weighty than during any other time of the year2.
  • Ramadan is a time of prayer, spending time with loved ones, remembering those less fortunate, and giving to charity.

How is Ramadan Observed?

Often, you won’t even know that your Muslim friend is observing Ramadan because it is not a public display. But knowing the primary practices will help you be aware of what they are experiencing.

  • During Ramadan, practicing Muslims fast from food and drink from sunrise to sunset as an act of sacrifice and self-restraint. Some also give up sexual relations, smoking or other activities during those hours.
  • Through self-deprivation, Ramadan encourages Muslims to consider those less fortunate than themselves.
  • Charitable giving puts that concern for the less fortunate into action and is a regular part of the observance of Ramadan. By the end of the 30 days, adults who have more food than they need pay Zakat al-Fitr – a contribution to support people in need of approximately $7 per head3.
  • Most rise before dawn to eat a meal called the suhoor. The dusk meal is called the iftar, which is often eaten communally. Muslims traditionally break their fasts by eating a date, as advised by the Prophet Muhammad.
  • Some people are exempt from fasting: children who haven’t reached puberty; women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or on their periods; the elderly; and people with health problems.
  • In addition to Islam’s five daily prayers, some Muslims add nightly prayers to their observances, whether in a congregation or in a mosque, and recite one-thirtieth of the Qur'an each night.
  • During Ramadan, many offices and schools in Muslim-majority countries shut early or close during fasting hours.
  • There are small differences in the traditions and practices of Ramadan depending on the sect of Islam a person follows.
  • The end of Ramadan is commemorated with Eid al-Fitr, which means “the feast of the breaking of the fast.” It is considered a major holiday for Muslims and is often celebrated with congregational prayer, new clothes, presents for children, communal meals, and even fireworks.  

How Should I Interact with my Muslim Friend during Ramadan?

It can be intimidating when you don’t share someone’s culture or beliefs, and you might worry about doing or saying the wrong thing. If you are a considerate, caring person, however, there is no real cause for concern. That said, they will appreciate your genuine recognition and caring.

  • Non-Muslims can acknowledge their Muslim friends, neighbors or co-workers by greeting them appropriately during Ramadan. “Ramadan Mubarak” is a way of congratulating them on celebrating Ramadan (Happy Ramadan), whereas “Ramadan Kareem” commends them for their self-deprivation and generosity. You may also wish them an easy fast.
  • On Eid-al-fitr, the last day of Ramadan, the greeting changes to “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed Eid).
  • Don’t worry about eating in front of your Muslim friends – they are used to it.
  • Out of kindness, however, try to avoid lunch meetings, happy hour gatherings and invitations to coffee during Ramadan to minimize your co-worker’s explanations of why they aren’t eating/drinking.
  • It’s okay to ask sincere, respectful questions.
  • Be accommodating with requests for adjusted schedules, if possible, to allow for the sunrise to sunset fasting or times of prayer. 
  • Don’t equate Ramadan fasting with weight-loss fasting – that’s just not the point.

Learning, Growing, Sharing

Now that you know a bit more about Ramadan, put what you’ve learned into practice with your Muslim friends - and do the same for the next person you meet who is different from you. Taking every opportunity to learn about others, listen to differing views, grow in knowledge of the world, and share our common humanity is the hallmark of a critical thinker. Where better to do that than in the classroom with diverse students from around the globe? Ottawa University’s fully online bachelor and master-of-arts programs will equip you to engage with those of all backgrounds to collectively make a difference in our shrinking world. Enroll today!



Posted: 04/14/2023
Updated: 04/14/2023 by OU Online
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