This year, Ramadan began on June 28th and will last until July 28th. In honor of the holiday, Niagara’s interns Danny and Brandon conducted some research on the holiday in Millennium Park as well as asked some of our Turkish staff about the holiday’s significance.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The tradition of fasting called the Sawm occurs from sunrise to sunset. Before sunrise, muslims eat a meal called a Suhoor and break the fast with a meal called the iftar. During this time, muslims are to abstain from eating, drinking water, smoking, sex, profanity, and other acts that are considered sinful.
The tradition of fasting predates the rise of Islam and was practiced by the Sabeans well before the prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time. The month of Ramadan is a time that muslims devote more of their time and energy towards Allah and often participate more in charity and in prayers.
Danny and Brandon sat down with the Vice President for Development & Strategy at Niagara, Mevlut “Hilmi” Cinar, and discussed his personal take on the practicing of Ramadan. Hilmi explained that there are three dimensions to the benefits of fasting. First, the religious obligation of the Sawm, the physical benefits of fasting, and finally the social aspect of Ramadan.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims place extra emphasis on their devotion to God. By cutting out many day to day indulgences, a Muslim opens up more room in his or her life to devote towards God.
Hilmi stated that the last few minutes preceding the Iftar dinner are some of the holiest moments for Muslims during Ramadan. It is when the temptation to eat and drink after a long day is the strongest. However, he added, resisting the temptation to eat is one of the most important lessons of humility in a Muslim’s life. It reminds Muslims that the Iftar dinner is a gift from God’s and that they cannot eat without his permission.
Hilmi also discussed the physical benefits of fasting. “When you are fasting, your body goes through a detoxification process. You give your body a rest from food.” Hilmi said. He discussed how over the course of Ramadan, the act of fasting actually helps him be a more temperate eater. Over the course of the holiday, Hilmi observes that he begins to eat less and becomes less dependent on food.
He also shared his personal view on Ramadan’s social benefits. Fasting allows Muslims to feel more connected to those who are less fortunate. “When you are fasting and you walk out of the building and see a homeless man or woman, you feel more connected with them because you have a better understanding of what they suffer each and every day.”
A second aspect to the social benefits are of course when Muslims gather with friends and family for Iftar dinner. Hilmi compared Iftar dinners to Thanksgiving dinner, only for a month straight. With more than a billion muslims worldwide, Iftar dinners are one of the most important institutions of unity in all of Islam.
This Thursday, writing and reporting interns Brandon and Danny returned to Millenium park. This time, they interviewed the people of Chicago about their knowledge of Ramadan. Of the dozen or so people interviewed, Danny and Brandon were surprised by how much people actually knew about Ramadan.
While a few participants had no knowledge of the holiday of Ramadan, most people knew enough to associate the month-long holiday with fasting. One woman we interviewed was a Romanian Catholic, “I learned about Ramadan through the Arabic Restaurant that I used to work at. I don’t know much about it, but we fast for Easter. However, we only cut out dairy and meat”.
A young couple we met was informed of the holiday only through the news covering the recent events occurring in Israel.
Another woman we interviewed, whilst munching on a chicken shawarma sandwich drenched in Tahini sauce ironically mused about the rigours of fasting for a month. Some people however did not know at all what Ramadan was. One man we interviewed knew nearly nothing about Ramadan, but was a wrestler in high school and college, and knew the rigour and mental challenge of fasting to cut weight.
After striking up a brief conversation, Hilmi jokingly suggested to Danny that he should try fasting in Ramadan tradition for a day. Danny took this off-the-cuff joke as a challenge and at 12:31pm on Thursday, Danny has yet to drink a glass of water or have a bite to eat and is still going strong.
“I’m a heavy, habitual coffee drinker,” Danny admitted. “To be honest, it’s not the hunger that’s tough. I’m busy enough at the office to stay occupied. My throats getting a little scratchy and my mouth is a bit dry, but it’s not painful. It’s really not drinking coffee for a whole day that’s going to get me. I’d also like to run today, but the combination of me not drinking any water and the early evening Chicago humidity wouldn’t end very well.”
When asked if he had the willpower to do this every day for a month straight, Danny replied, “It depends. On Yom Kippur there is a tradition of fasting, but as an athlete I was never able to participate in the fasting. I just simply needed the fluids and calories. This is the first time I’ve fasted in a very long time. I think the first three days would be really tough, but afterwards your body would learn to compensate.”
Danny and Brandon were impressed with how much people knew about Ramadan. Although people didn’t know the complete ins and outs of the holiday, most people exceeded their expectations. Understanding the holy month of Ramadan is critical to understanding the rich, vibrant, and sometimes rigorous customs that make Islam such a fascinating religion. Also, those of us of other faiths find that learning more about other traditions has the added benefit of helping us interpret our own religion.