As Ramadan draws to a close, Muslims begin to look back in reflection on the month of fasting. Each day, from sunrise until sunset, Muslims refrain from food and drink to commemorate Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran.
Once the sun sets, the daily fast comes to an end and the nightly meal, Iftar, begins. Do you know what to expect at an Iftar?
1. Arrive on time
Iftar is a regular breaking of the fast, and occurs exactly at the time of the sunset. If you happen to arrive late, you may miss the most important part of this Islamic tradition. So don’t do that!
2. Expect a crowd
Community is an important part of Ramadan. Breaking the fast and sharing food strengthens bonds between family and friends. Iftar is often a chance for people to host each other in their homes or gather together for a potluck in a local mosque.
3. Enjoy great food
Since Iftar translates from Arabic as “break fast,” you would be right to guess that the main event at a gathering is eating food. Following the tradition set by the prophet Mohammed, the fast is typically broken with dates and water. Be ready for lots of snacks, drinks, and sometimes even full course meals, but don’t start eating until the crowd breaks fast together.
Caring for others is a central theme of Ramadan. Some Muslims choose to give Iftar to others as a demonstration of this theme. The Islamic religious texts teach that blessings and rewards await those who show kindness to others, especially during Ramadan.
5. Prayer is prevalent
Shortly after breaking the fast with dates and water, Muslims pray the Maghrib. This is one of the five daily prayers recited throughout the year. Immediately following Iftar, Muslims recite additional night prayers called Tarawih. These prayers take place either in a mosque or the home, and sometimes last up to two hours.
6. The last breaking of the fast
After Ramadan comes to an end, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Fast Breaking. In the spirit of each nightly Iftar, this festival marks an end to the month of fasting. Though the festival takes different forms across the Muslim world, the day of Eid marks the end of one of the important five pillars of Islam, Ramadan, alongside faith, prayer, charity, and the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar and it is a month in which Muslims abstain from food, water, and sexual relations with their spouses during the day in order to develop taqwa (closeness) with Allah. It also serves to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad. It is a pillar of Islam and obligatory on all adult Muslims who are healthy enough to observe it.
“O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during then] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.”
-Surah Baqarah 184-185
To understand why this month is an essential part of any Muslim’s life, it is important to first understand the significance of the word taqwa. Taqwa is an Arabic word that translates into English as piety, consciousness of Allah, fear of Allah, or closeness to him. A better way of understanding it would be to combine all these concepts: being conscious that Allah sees all and that reverence towards our religion influences our everyday choices, which in turn brings us closer to Him.
During this time we are also encouraged to give zakat (charity), read the entire Quran, study at the masjid (Muslim place of worship), break our fasts with family and friends, and participate in nightly prayers known as tarawih prayer.
When we break our fasts together and give zakat we form a closer bond with our family and community. When we seek knowledge and perform tarawih it strengthens our relationship with Allah and gives us a better understanding of him. All of this is meant to remind us that our purpose on this Earth is to worship Allah.
We experience a renewed sense of spirituality that doesn’t just end when Ramadan is over. It carries on into the rest of the year as well. We are still tasked with seeking deeper knowledge of our religion, remaining charitable, and maintaining bonds with our family and community. Taqwa isn’t just in the heart, it is also supposed to reflect in our actions towards others.
“Terrorism dominates the news, anti-Muslim sentiment is rising and American Muslim kids are bullied by young people and adults alike. As parents, we wonder: How do we make our children feel safe even when we don’t? How do we make them feel safe about their faith?”
I wrote that in an opinion-editorial for The Washington Post a few years ago, co-authoring with a friend, a young mother like myself, who was confounded by the same question. In the piece, we interviewed several other American Muslim parents, all expressing similar concerns about protecting faith and spirituality in an age of politicized religion.
Each of us shared practices we implement to buffer our kids from outside spiritual threats. There have been plenty of times when I have rushed to turn off CNN when my daughter walked in to hear politicians declare “Islam hates us” or to video footage of the latest horrific terrorist attack.
But buffering can go only so far. We need tools to help youth stay firmly rooted in their faiths and remain conscious of God’s presence even when—especially when—the outside world threatens to rip away their spiritual wonder and certainty. Many of the parents I interviewed for my op-ed said their solution was to ground their children first and foremost in the basics of Islam.
What else can Muslim parents do? And is there anything from other faith practices that might work for us, too? Based on my interactions with believers from other faith communities, I am certain there is.
Mormon practice, in particular, fascinates me. This is partly because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its history of religious liberty persecution, provides models of perseverance for American Muslims today. It also has a uniquely American flavor at a time when American Muslims are still struggling to strengthen their communities and build institutions. In this moment when such institutions are few and far between, I envy the organization of the LDS Church, particularly for its effects on youth.
One sociologist, Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, has found that Mormonism is uniquely successful in cultivating youth “who firmly understand what they believe and why their faith needs to have a claim on their behavior.” She identifies four elements of this success:
- Mormon youth know their faith, and they know it well. They don’t learn it from media or from friends outside their faith community. They aren’t fed generalities or what Dean calls the “feel-good stuff.” And there’s both an institutional and home dimension to their teaching. Classes happen in both venues, helping to connect what happens outside the home to what happens in the kids’ safest, most intimate spaces.
- Mormon youth are taught to articulate what their faith is and why they participate in their religious practices. By translating knowledge into testimony, they acquire key skills, like leadership, storytelling, and the ability to connect with others personally.
- It’s not all talk — action matters too. Mormon youth define their goals and work toward achieving them. Contributions start small but early — tithing, volunteering for service projects, and Church building upkeep.
- Purpose isn’t defined in earthly terms only. The ultimate reason and hope of religious life is to be successful in the life that comes after death.
Some of these overlap with Muslim practices, particularly the focus on life after death — as the Prophet Muhammad advised, “Be in this world as though you were a wayfarer.” Life is entirely about journeying to the hereafter. This sort of focus can’t help but buttress one’s spirituality.
But other areas of overlap show how the modern experience of Islam can learn from Mormonism. Consider, for example, the second element above: articulating one’s faith. In our current political climate, every young American Muslim is expected by the larger society to serve as a spokesman for the faith. Yet, unlike the Mormon articulation of faith, this spokesmanship tends to focus on apologetics and political talking points. Even worse, it begins to chip away from the experience of Islam as religion.
When it comes to learning the faith, there is also room to improve. So many young American Muslims today learn about their faith through media. For us, learning has all too often become a matter of reaction: What are others saying about Islam and how do we respond? How do we defend our practices from ugly accusations? Again, I lament the spiritual emptiness that comes with politicized religion. Meanwhile, the beauty of Islamic beliefs is inviting to be discovered more richly.
I realize that so much of what I envy about Mormonism is its ability to extract itself from its surroundings and focus inwardly. The Church has faced and continues to face challenges from without, but it keeps its adherents firmly centered on substantive beliefs translated into concrete, impactful actions. In my own experience of faith, particularly as I transmit it to my kids, the Mormon model of centeredness is something I seek to replicate.
Asma Uddin is the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also a lawyer and scholar specializing in American and international religious liberty.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.