For Osama Rifat, the memories of childhood iftars are filled with warmth and joy.
The iftar is an after-sunset meal that Muslims eat, traditionally with family and/or with members of their local believer community, to break the daytime fast observed each day during the holy month of Ramadan.
Rifat, a quality assurance analyst at ASI, recalls the iftars of her youth as “a feast for the eyes, the body and the spirit. As a child, I remember sitting at tables laden with food, counting the minutes until sunset and then breaking the fast upon hearing the call to prayer with a date and a glass of water. Then there’d be a quick family gathering to pray. And then we’d get down to the serious business of eating.” Additional important prayers, the Isha and Taraweeh, would follow, she explains.
For sure, iftars are a spirit-lifting aspect of Ramadan, but as Rifat rightly points out they’re only one component of a holy time that’s deeply significant for Muslims. And just what is that significance? What does Ramadan mean for Muslims?
ASI’s Diversity and Inclusion Council felt it was important to spotlight answers to those questions.
For one thing, Ramadan is currently underway in the United States, occurring here from Monday, April 12 to Wednesday, May 12. For another, the team at ASI, the North American promotional products industry’s largest membership organization, includes talented people like Rifat who are practicing Muslims. In the interest of helping to build bridges to greater shared understanding of colleagues and their rich cultures, a blog on Ramadan at this pivotal time of the year within Islam seems well-placed.
“Gaining insight into the beliefs, joys and practices of all our colleagues really is the key to a successful and diverse corporate culture,” says ASI President and CEO Tim Andrews. “We will always be stronger and more effective together.”
Beginning and ending with the appearance of the crescent moon, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Due to differences in the Gregorian and Muslim calendars, the spiritual period typically starts 10 to 12 days earlier each year, which allows Ramadan to occur in every season over a 33-year-cycle.
“Ramadan is a recalibration of one’s spiritual person.” Imam Numaan Cheema
“Ramadan is where the foundations of our religion are sowed,” says Numaan Cheema, the Imam at The Zubaida Foundation, a Muslim nonprofit organization and mosque located in Yardley, PA, near ASI’s headquarters. “It’s a huge part of who we are as believers.”
According to Islamic tradition, it was during one of the final nights of Ramadan that Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the Quran, Islam’s holy book. As part of Ramadan observances, Muslims are called on to recenter their spiritual lives in their faith and how it calls them to live, something traditionally achieved through practices that include introspection, prayer and acts of self-restraint.
“Ramadan is a completely different experience and creates a sense of togetherness that can be felt every single day,” says Muhammad Kamran, an automation test lead with ASI.
The self-restraint component includes the obligation for most healthy adult Muslims, with a few exceptions, to fast from sun-up to sunset each day during Ramadan.
Still, self-restraint is about more than just not eating or drinking during the day. It’s about eschewing all forms of undesirable/immoral behavior as Islam defines it, including what religious leaders describe as impure and unkind thoughts. “During Ramadan,” Kamran explains, “it’s not just a test of our fast with food and water that makes us stronger, but is also a test of our words and our actions.”
Rifat elaborates: “Ramadan is a month of self-regulation and self-training. Ramadan can be considered as the triumph of the soul over earthly needs. No one can be enslaved by his or her routine physical needs. The morning cup of coffee or cigarette, the midday meal or breakfast are all given up for a higher cause – the purification of the inner self.”
“Ramadan is a completely different experience and creates a sense of togetherness that can be felt every single day.” Muhammad Kamran, ASI
Prayer is pivotal to Ramadan. It’s especially important to engage in salah (or salat), ritual prayer performed five times daily in set forms. Communal prayer/recitation of the Quran is at the heart of each evening’s activities. “We do nightly readings of the Quran,” says Cheema. “Over the course of the month, we recite the entire 30 sections of the Quran.”
Performing acts of charity and goodwill are an essential focus of Ramadan, too.
“A tradition in our family is to donate to charity, apart from regular ones, and assist in food drives for the people that aren’t so fortunate,” shares Rifat. “This gives a feeling of spreading joy to everyone. Furthermore, you get to see yourself in the place of people who don’t have enough to eat, and this gives me determination to help out as much as possible.”
Meanwhile, the Zubaida Foundation has made it a practice to provide free food/meals to the needy, as well as baskets filled with high quality goods and gift cards for Eid al-fitr, a celebration that marks the end of Ramadan with special foods, gift-giving, communal prayer and more. “When Eid comes, we make a special dessert in our house,” Kamran details. “It has been a tradition for years in our family and it forces all of us to take a break from our hectic lives. The dessert is also just delicious to eat.”
As Rifat alluded to above, developing greater empathy for others, and the cultivation of an unselfish spirit that seeks to help people, is a key outgrowth of Ramadan.
“The goals of Ramadan are to build our sacred consciousness and reconnect with God on an individual level and to connect with and be of service to our community through charity and related actions,” says Cheema. “A wonderful byproduct of working toward these goals is that we learn deeper empathy.”
“Ramadan can be considered as the triumph of the soul over earthly needs.” Osama Rifat, ASI
Kamran says the benefits of Ramadan are manifold.
“Not only does Ramadan cleanse my physical health with the action of fasting, but I am reminded to be more patient in every aspect of life and spiritual growth is also achieved simultaneously,” Kamran says.
“Ramadan makes me closer to Allah, and makes me conscious of every little thing I’m doing in a day,” Rifat shares. “It has taught me self-restraint, self-confidence, contentedness, and perseverance. It has helped me to be more patient and humble.”
That’s all in keeping with the spirit of this holy month.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life,” Cheema says. “In that, we can lose connection with our spiritual selves. Ramadan is a recalibration of one’s spiritual person. It’s about reconnecting with God and repointing our lives in the direction we should be going.