Oh Happy Day! It's Ramadan again, one of my favorite times of the year. An opportunity to pray and fast from food, water, and marital sex from the first moment you can distinguish a white thread from a black thread in the morning, until sundown. I'm only sorry to not live in a Muslim country for the first time in 3 years, and so will miss much of the festivities. They say you never eat so well as during Ramadan, as there is a tendency to gorge oneself at night.
If you think the word is familiar- No one knows where the word Ramadan comes from, but it is similar to the root for "scorching heat", and therefore might refer to the intense time of endurance from food and water. Arabic words are almost all based on a trilateral consanental root, in this case, R-m-d. During the Moorish occupation of Spain many Arab words entered or influenced the Spanish language, such as the word ramada, meaning "shady resting place", and therefore etymologically similar to Ramadan. And Marion Isbell thought the word would be a good name for his hotel chain.
Muslims all over the world look to when the first sliver of the moon appears to know that Ramadan has begun. Depending on cloudiness and smog, this leads to a Ramadan beginning on any of three days in different locations. Of course, with modern astronomy, the beginning of the new moon can be precisely determined to the minute, but this has remained a controversial practice, as it depends on some methods that Mohammed (pbuh) didn't use. But American Muslims have recently agree to begin determining their dates together using modern science, to allow more uniformity in the community.
Customs vary from country to country, but often the fast is broken with something called Ftur, or breakfast, at sunset, when dates and a light repast are consumed, before the much larger meal later in the evening, often very late at night, around 10. Then, before daylight, another meal is consumed- the point is to legalistically not eat during daytime. This of course leads to many kids being inordanently tired the following day. As much as possible many Muslims will sleep during the day to reduce the hours of hunger awareness. Some countries enforce fasting with heavy proscriptions; others rely on social stigmatization for those breaking fast. It is considered obligatory for Muslims and one of the 5 pillars of Islam. Mosque attendance increases substantially during the month, with many men staying up late into the night with the hopes of chanting the entire Qur'an in one month. Prayers are especially auspicious on the Night of Power, the 27th night of Ramadan (or any one of the last 10 nights of the month, depending on which traditions you follow)- with nights determined in the old Hebraic way, "evening and morning of the 1st day", so that this evening marks the beginning of Ramadan.
In a sense the month is a religiously timeless event, operating in Kairos time instead of Chronos time, for it unlike 'id al Kibir, the Great Feast, Ramadan does not correspond to any historical event, other than by tradition the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed during this month. It is completed with 'id al Saghir or 'id al Ftur, The Small Feast or Feast of Breakfast, a two day event of visiting family and enjoying food together, often a national holiday in Muslim nations. For the previous month Muslims have been fasting for a variety of reasons: to identify with the poor; to gain njar, points with God; to focus on needs in prayer; to focus on God; to build up endurance; or simply because it was commanded. So the meaning often corresponds to Christian methods of fasting- although of course the traditional Christian practice of fasting is without food only, day and night, for days at a time. And of course there is no mandatory traditional practice for Christian fasting, but rather whatever God calls you to. It is expected that Muslims should treat each other well and with kindness during this time of striving, though in practice, tempors are often short due to lack of food and larger stomachs from the previous night's gorging.
The primary ethic of Islam is obedience; the highest calling is to be a slave (of God). Therefore, the main purpose of the fast is because you're supposed to, though other purposes are not excluded. This contasts with Christian practices, in that the primary ethic of Christianity is love; the highest calling to be a friend (of God). And therefore the main purpose of the Christian fast is to gain a closer relationship with God, though other purposes are not excluded. I have found over the past years that this month is by far my greatest time of prayer and intimacy with God, being able to have a regular regimen to focus on Him and enjoy His presence in the timelessness of forever. So I am excited.