Chaplain’s Corner: What is Ramadan?

Sidra Mahmood

The ninth lunar month of Islam, Ramadan, begins roughly a week from now. It is the month when around 1.8 billion Muslims around the world abstain from food, water, and sexual intimacy from dawn to sunset each day for 29 or 30 days depending on the moon’s cycle. Thanks to the advocacy of those before me, it now shows up in the print version of the Williams Academic Calendar. However, despite Muslim students, faculty, and staff having practiced Ramadan on this campus for many years, a Muslim may still be asked: “What is Ramadan?”

The word Ramadan comes from the Arabic root words ra-ma-ḍa which means “heated by the intensity of the sun” or “burning.” Imam Qurtubi writes in his exegesis of 2:185 that the month is named so because it “burns the stomach of the one who is thirsty (from fasting)” and that “fasting burns sins through good deeds.” When one fasts and holds back from giving into their temptations and whims, they are, in essence, burning their ego that is constantly fed by the material world. It is no wonder that fasting is prescribed for Muslims as a spiritual connection to our siblings in faith who preceded us in history so that we may learn “God-consciousness” or “self-restraint” (2:183). 

I personally see fasting in Ramadan as a spiritual gratitude for the “guidance” humankind continues to receive through the Quran because the Quran was revealed in Ramadan. As someone who is not required to fast this year due to breastfeeding, I seek comfort in the words that conclude the command of fasting in 2:185:

God intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship, and wants for you to complete the period [of fasting] and to glorify God for that to which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.

While the physical form of fasting represents abstinence from fulfilling one’s bodily needs, the inner dimension of fasting requires restraining from diseases of the heart such as arrogance, backbiting, gossip, greed, anger, and others. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, describes fasting as a shield and advises the Muslim that if someone tries to argue with them or abuses them, the Muslim must respond,  Innī ṣāimun — I am fasting,” or literally, “I am abstaining.” Muslim communities often share food after delivering (or breaking) their fast at sunset. However, we are encouraged to remember those who have no access to food by being mindful when we eat and not giving in to gluttony and overindulgence.

Practically, any spiritual regimen does not always look the same for everyone. Similarly, fasting in practice looks different for each individual. Your caffeine-lover Muslim friend may not be themselves without their morning cup of coffee. An athlete may have to take more frequent breaks, especially as they push through practice without any hydration. One of your Muslim classmates may seem to be more alert because they are loving the early morning routine, while the other may be groggy because they were up late practicing the nightly vigil and prayer of tarāwīh. Or… your friend may simply be short-tempered because they are hungry… or rather, hangry.

Beginning March 23, Muslim students, faculty, and staff will be gathering every evening at sunset in the basement of Thompson Memorial Chapel to break their fast together over dates and food, and pray in congregation. Their non-Muslim friends, colleagues, and professors are all welcome! The Chaplains’ Office has also worked this year with Dining Services to include proteins such as halal chicken salad and halal turkey sandwiches in the pre-dawn meal or suhoor care packages that Muslim students can pick up every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, including during Spring Break. Take-out boxes will be available for iftar, the meal after sunset, in Driscoll during Spring Break and Whitman’s Dining Hall will be open until 9:00pm after Spring Break. The Chaplains’ Office will also be providing dates to be shared with everyone in celebration of Ramadan.

As we approach Ramadan next week, I ask all my community members at the College and beyond, Muslims and their non-Muslim allies, to meditate on the practice of fasting in their traditions and that of Islam. I ask you, as well as myself this Ramadan, “What are you pledging to fast from this year?”

Sidra Mahmood is the College’s Muslim Chaplain.