Ramadan is upon us.
As far back as I am able to recall memories, my father has remained consistent on one of the most time-honored of traditions to kick off the holiest month on the Islamic calendar — the moon sighting.
Every year, on the prospective eve of what marks the start of Ramadan (the 9th month of the Islamic calendar that Muslims observe through fasting, prayer, and service to humankind) our dad heads outside to a clearing with night sky visibility to see if he can spot the new, crescent moon. “You have to see it with the naked eye,” he insists.
And every year, my sisters and I wait for his call, “Alhumdulilah (Praise be to God), the moon has been sighted. Ramadan Mubarak.” It is one of the most endearing traditions in this modern era of calendars and science. Muslim real talk: This is also known as moon-sighting fighting because the whole world is jostling for who saw the moon first and when. It has become so culturally significant, there are memes and tweets abound. If you know, you know.
As a Muslim who has only experienced the sanctity of fasting a handful of times in my life, my clearest memories are of Eid-al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. Eid was the best day. We would go to bed on the eve, with my aunt or mom having designed Mehndi/Henna on our hands, gingerly tucked in plastic sandwich bags so we didn’t smear it. Wake up, check for smears and wash off the dried bits of henna plant paste to reveal the most vibrant orange art from fingertips to wrists. We put on our brand new outfits and drove down to McCormick Place Convention Center, Chicago, where tens of thousands of people would gather to pray, together. I was as young and distractible as any kid who sits through long services with their parents (I mostly couldn’t wait to get to my aunt’s house to play “basement olympics” with my cousins all day) but I can still hear the collective sounds of unity from the call to prayer, to the synchronized hugs of “Eid Mubarak” after the service. And, I will always remember the huge meal our mom spent days preparing, the number of times she sent our dad to the grocery store during that preparation and receiving those “Eidy” gifts from relatives — tiny envelopes with the fresh smell of crisp dollar bills that we would run away with, collecting, counting and declaring our tiny fortunes!
Growing up, I couldn’t really find my way in sharing the awesome day I just had, back at school. The absence of Ramadan from the Gregorian calendar — the one we use in secular schools around the world (named after Pope Gregory XIII) made in-school life for Muslim students “different” from other kids. There were no die-cut month templates celebrating or lending visibility to the holidays and observances my family celebrated across the calendar year. There were no writing prompts about the holiday the day after we got back. We had to miss a day of school if Eid fell on a weekday. Perfect Attendance records shattered! (I was not this student, but I know you’re out there!) I shuddered at the thought of my parents calling into school to ask for an “excused absence”.
Today, it is incredible to see educators and school communities marking Ramadan on calendars, recognizing and respecting the needs of Muslim students who observe fasting during Ramadan, and making space for it in their curriculum. There are more Ramadan-focused read-alouds and messages and greetings of Ramadan Mubarak! (Nagla Bedir’s comprehensive “Ramadan Considerations for Teachers During Distance Learning” offers a thoughtful list of timely suggestions.) These acts of inclusion call for both celebration and forwarding progress, as we continue to design the robust blueprint of equity we need in our public spaces.
My work lives at the intersection of identity and getting proximate to the human story — to the identities of people who look and don’t look like us, who sit on the margins of our classroom rugs, who are living their best life in ways we quite conceptualize — as one way to create change and forge a more humane future.
In wanting to pen a word about Ramadan, I know that my experience is limited, but Islamic culture runs deep in its diversity. As someone who identifies as the daughter of Muslim immigrants, I am aware that I share this month with 1.8 billion other human beings across ethnic, racial, and geographical lines. Muslims are not a monolith, Islam is not a single story.
So, I called it in. Knowing the best way to understand Ramadan is to hear from the folx who observe and celebrate it. I reached out to three of my dear friends from different points of my journey as an educator. They have all given me the gift of confidence in who I am today and I am so grateful they agreed to share a slice of their dynamic lives as children, and now educators and parents, with us. They will introduce themselves and how they identify.
Dr. Sawsan Jaber, Educator and consultant
My name is Sawsan Jaber; I identify as a Palestinian American Muslim woman, a passionate educator and learner, and the daughter of Palestinian refugees. She/Her/Hers @SJeducate
Muhammad Ramadan, Educational Technologist
My name is Muhammad Ramadan. I identify as a multi-ethnic man, the son of Muslim converts, and a positive, practical and purposeful human being. He/Him/His @TheBossRamadan
Shameer Bismilla, Teacher and Literacy Coordinator:
German European School Singapore, Adjunct Lecturer National Institute Early Childhood Development (NIEC)
My name is Muhammad Shameer Bin Bismilla. I am an Indian Muslim Singaporean. My mother is Pakistani and my dad is South Indian. He/Him/His @Sham2605Shameer
Muslims can be peppered with “Ramadan 101” questions as the holiday approaches. Being on the receiving end of that can be tiring for people who are the lone cultural representatives in the spaces they occupy. Over time, these questions, some with a tone of teaching the Muslim about Ramadan and some sprinkled with bias and opinion, however well-intentioned, become microaggressions.
Here are a few of the gems:
So, what is Ramadan about?
Is it healthy? Will you gain weight?
Why is it so cruel?
So, you don’t eat for 30 days?!
Fasting is fine, but why can’t you drink water?
Can I eat in front of you?
Can you chew gum? Can you brush your teeth if you can’t drink water? Can you take breath fresheners?
So, you can’t have water?
A great way to satisfy curiosities about cultures is to read about them. (I’ve even included some resources at the end of this post.) And because we know that Google and YouTube are free, we encourage you to get your inquiry on!
Through an interview format, Sawsan (SJ), Muhammad (MR), Shameer (SB), and I discuss some questions around what Ramadan means to them and how they celebrate in their lives. Our hope is that we can all get more proximate, walking away with an urge to cultivate an inclusive practice of knowledge over fear in life and in school (Zoom school or school building) by spending some time with their truths.
Join me in entering this conversation with gratitude and excitement as they all choose to share a piece of themselves.
What do you do during Ramadan?
SB: Ramadan is a sacred month for all Muslims. I believe that it is the month where I religiously observe my fasting from dawn to dusk. During this blessed month, fasting has helped to serve several spiritual and social purposes. I would consciously attempt to reconcile my relationships with people whom I’ve wronged in the past. I would also make time to perform my daily prayers as well as Terawih prayers (Sunna). Fasting has helped me to strengthen my faith as a Muslim. It teaches me to practice patience and gratitude for the simple things in life that we have taken for granted. Furthermore, it makes me feel compassionate towards others who are poor and in need. I would take the opportunity to donate to charitable organisations such as Mosques and orphanages. Lastly, fasting is a chance for me to be healthy as it allows me to control my food intake and consume healthier foods like dates.
You’re not going to eat for 30 days? Are you starving yourself?
SJ: This question is probably the one that I get asked the most. It is quite the opposite. Because we are eating one main meal instead of three, we eat really well. My mom always cooked the most special dishes that everyone loved in Ramadan. We had potlucks, so we had so much variety. The first couple of days Ramadan can be a bit more challenging because your body is getting used to a new eating schedule. For me, the caffeine withdrawals the first few days can be brutal. By the end of the first week, your body is so used to it, it becomes the new normal. Even after Ramadan, when we are able to eat, we often stick to a primarily Ramadan schedule because that is what our bodies have adjusted to. All except for the coffee. That is my first present to myself on Eid mornings!
MR: In the past, folks would respond with such shock and awe around the idea of fasting for 30 days. Of course, now, I explain that fasting occurs from dawn to dusk, and it mostly feels like skipping lunch. While it is a challenge, I point out that I would much rather be fasting in the convenience of twenty-first-century America versus the harsh demands of 6th century Saudi Arabia. I like to keep things in perspective.
Is Ramadan/Eid like Christmas? Do you get presents?
SJ: Like Christmas, Eid traditions vary by family, by country of origin, and based on people’s means. Eid is a time with family. After praying a special optional Eid prayer in the mosque with our best clothing, my family always begins Eid morning with a breakfast gathering in the house of my grandparents. All of my aunts, uncles, and cousins honored the eldest in the family by gathering there. There were over seventy of us in their house on Eid mornings. That is where the children were given the ‘Eidiyat,’ our Eid gifts. Many of my friends got gifts, but my family always gave us money so that we could purchase what we wanted. We looked forward to our Toys ‘R Us shopping spree two times a year. We then embarked on an adventure of sorts as a family, theme parks, family bowling challenges, barbecues with water balloon fights, etc. It really didn’t matter as long as we were all together.
MR: Nowadays, I don’t do as much for Eid. I will usually call or text my family and give them the greeting of Eid Mubarak. I recognize that the Eid had a more prominent place in my life as a child, and now it tends to mark a point of both closure and transition, essentially back to “normal” life.
Can I eat in front of you?
SB: In certain countries like Dubai/Malaysia, it is forbidden and seen as disrespectful to eat in front of someone who is fasting. Being a Sinagporean, I do not face the same issue because there is no strict ruling (e.g. fines) being imposed others who eat in front of a fellow Muslim. I have gotten used to people eating in front of me and tend to be more sensitive towards other parties who are not fasting because I do not want to make them feel uncomfortable. More than often, I do not mind if they eat in front of me. Personally, I do not feel it to be rude or offensive if people eat in front of me because it is I who choose to observe the fast and therefore do not feel the need to impose any limitation on others.
Why do some people fast and some don’t?
SJ: Islam recognizes that those who are sick, pregnant, traveling, or elderly may not be able to fast without it having adverse impacts on their health and well- being; therefore, they are exempt. If they are able, it is recommended that they give charity to feed the hungry instead. It is recommended for children to begin fasting when they feel ready to fast and for it to become an expectation when they reach puberty. My children all began fasting at different times for different reasons. My son began fasting at the age of ten because he felt like he was ready to do so. My youngest daughter fasted when she was eleven. Kids often feel like they are a part of a secret society when they fast; it is exciting. My eldest daughter began fasting when she was ten but then did not fast from the age of 15–18 because she developed a condition that required her
to intake large amounts of water throughout the day. In those years she was unable to fast because of her health, we gave money to feed the poor for every missed day of fasting. My kids mourn the end of Ramadan each year, and the wonderful connections and spiritual highs only Ramadan can bring.
Do you have a Ramadan/Eid memory or tradition you would like to share? From your own childhood or current adulting life?
MR: I have very fond memories of the Eid growing up. I remember that my parents made a concerted effort to make it special with gifts and celebrations. I recall running down the stairs to the living room as if it was Christmas morning to find so many fantastic presents from my parents, rather than Santa. There was everything a growing boy needed, including Looney Tunes VHS tapes (yes, VHS tapes!), remote control race cars, and of course, my very own Quran, complete with a leather cover with my name inscribed. My mom, mashallah, would also sew us “Eid Outfits” every year, probably from age 7–12. My most memorable outfit featured lightning bolt neon yellow Zubaz pants with the matching kufi cap to truly set it off. My sisters and I thought we were so styling as we rolled up to the Eid prayer at the local convention center or civic arena in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul). Looking back, I am amazed by my fashion choices, but more importantly, grateful to my parents for providing me with such a joyful and supportive childhood.
SB: On the last day of Ramadan, my family and I will go to my mum’s place to help cook a feast to celebrate the first day of Eid. We would also watch Hindi movies throughout the night. More than often, we are always clad in traditional Indian costumes on the first few days of Eid. On the first day of Eid, I would go to the mosque to perform Eid prayers. During my childhood days, where firecrackers were still permitted in Singapore, I would light them with my cousins on the last night of Ramadan. Every house visit on Eid is a moment to be cherished because we seek forgiveness and as children, we loved the idea of getting green packets (money).
SJ: Ramadan is about three things: strengthening your spiritual connection, appreciating the blessings we have and often don’t see, and connecting with family. My parents began family traditions when we were kids that I had the honor of keeping with my own children. As Palestinian refugees, it was so important for them to preserve their Islamic and cultural identity while integrating the American culture as a new layer of that identity. That had huge undertones in every aspect of our family traditions; Ramadan was no exception. We spent the days reading Quran in family and friend circles, attending special classes, and volunteering for pantries and other charitable causes so that we could give back. Iftar, the time to “break-fast” and Arabic for breakfast, was often a potluck feast with all of my uncles and cousins. We ate, had special Ramadan sweets called Katayef, and then prayed a special prayer called Taraweeh in the mosque. After the mosque, we came home and had a snack before going to sleep. Not much has changed from the Ramadan of my childhood.
What do you believe to be the greatest misconception about Ramadan and fasting?
MR: Fortunately and unfortunately for me, I have and continue to be an unofficial spokesperson for Ramadan. I wonder if there are people with the last name, Lent or Kippur that share a similar experience of involuntary endorsement. Needless to say, I spent most of my life being asked and, in many cases, told about Ramadan. The most common misconception that stands out to me is also the most common response I get when people meet me, “Oh, your last name is Ramadan, just like the holiday?” In the past, I used to nod my head and say yes. At the time, I appreciated that the response was positive and that there appeared to be some attempt by the individuals to be “woke.” However, as time progressed and I became an educator, I wanted to expand on this common, yet narrow definition. Now, when I see the opportunity, I respond by saying something along the lines of, “That’s cool that you are familiar with Ramadan. It’s an entire month, specifically the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. The holiday or celebration comes at the end, and it is called Eid Ul-Fitr.” Most of the time, folks will humor me with a polite nod or a “Wow! That’s interesting.” But let’s be real, I’m not doing it for them.
SJ: The Islamic tradition does not “force” anything on anyone. This applies to the hijab, marriage, and fasting; things often misconceived as forced. In my conversations with educator friends about Islam in general, their impression generally is that it is a rigid religion that “imposes harsh traditions like Ramadan.” I had a friend once ask me, “You claim that your God is merciful, how can a God that asks children not to eat and women to cover be merciful?” Although that is a loaded question that can’t be answered in a short response, my brief response is there is so much science today about the medical benefits of fasting. Ramadan is not a punishment. Ramadan is a spiritual cleansing. It is our Thanksgiving. We fast to appreciate our blessings and to recognize those who are less fortunate by giving. We give thanks, and then we give charity in different forms. Ramadan is twenty-nine or thirty days in a year where nothing is more important than your connection to God, and since our connection to God requires us to be selfless, then we sacrifice our comfort from sunrise to sunset. Just like every other requirement for any religion, levels of religiosity differ. Some people are more connected to their religion than others and follow religious texts like a life rule book, while others choose to follow it more loosely. At some points in our lives, events force us to gravitate and rely on our religion more, whereas at other points, we may stray away from it.
SA: (Sara, here!) I recently sat across the table from an educator who, when talking about how a former student used to glow about Ramadan time with his family, interjected her uninformed opinion (“Yeah, real fun, they just starve themselves!”). I (regretfully) said nothing at the time but later unpacked how this person also embraces any/all trending “lifestyles” like intermittent fasting. One, starvation is the involuntary absence of food for an extended period of time — it is not done with intention nor is it controlled. Fasting is voluntary — it is controlled, and if you are choosing to do it, you have access to food. Two, if you are familiar with the Intermittent Fasting (IF) trend made popular by privileged, social media influencers, then you know it as a community who fast for a set number of hours in the day/night, gather around purpose, ideas, accountability, support, meal ideas — hello, Ramadan! Let’s decolonize our minds around that, folx.
Today, thanks to educators like Muhammad, Sawsan, and Shameer, I see Ramadan with new eyes. Ramadan is not about eating or not eating. The narrative about not eating food and not drinking water oversimplifies what it means to billions of people around the world. Ramadan humbles you. It requires you to check your privilege. It requires you to think about consumption, about the way we exist in the world and your footprint on this planet. Looking back, I see why
my parents tirelessly put food and resources on the table for those in need due to systemic structures that limit their access, why they organize Interfaith gatherings during Iftar (the time to break fast) — Ramadan brings collective and higher purpose.
So, from Sawsan, Shameer, Muhammad and myself, we wish you health and blessings during a time when so many are in need and we are all being called to face that purpose. May we all be in close proximity to our students, colleagues, families and neighbors again soon. Inshallah.
And I’ll let you know when our dad calls to inform us, “the moon has been sighted”.
And remember, #notevenwater, friends.
Peace be with you. Ramadan Mubarak, everyone.
Ramadan 2019: 9 questions about the Muslim holy month you were too embarrassed to ask (Vox)
A Non-Muslim Girl’s Guide to the Workplace (Muslim Girl)
A Mighty Girl (Keyword search: Muslim)
11 Awkward Moments that Happen during Ramadan (BuzzFeed)
Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam (Teaching Tolerance)
A Brief History of the Veil in Islam (Facing History)
Sara K. Ahmed is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where her classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others. Sara is the author of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension and coauthor with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. You can find her on Twitter @SaraKAhmed