Preparing for Ramadan
There is growing awareness among non-Muslims in the Philippines of Ramadan, the month of fasting, mainly because of Eid’l Fitr, which is considered a national holiday.
But Eid’l Fitr actually marks the end of Ramadan and because it is a festive day, non-Muslim Filipinos tend to think of it as a “Muslim Christmas,” to use the words of some high school students when I asked them if they knew why there were no classes that day.
The observance of Ramadan uses the Islamic calendar, and so each year it moves a bit earlier on the western Gregorian calendar. This year, it should start this Saturday, June 28 and because it is not a holiday, many Filipinos will be unaware of it, and its significance.
I thought I should devote today’s column to Ramadan, and how our schools and offices can be more sensitive to the needs of Muslims during the month.
More than fasting
First, an explanation of what Ramadan is. This is an entire month during which Muslims are supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset. There are actually several levels of fasting. Ordinary fasting is simply not taking food or water during the day. Also prohibited are smoking and sexual activity. Special fasting has an additional element of not saying, hearing or doing wrong. And extra special fasting means abstaining from all thoughts that distract a person from the religious.
All adults are supposed to observe Ramadan. Exempted are the ill, and those who are traveling, pregnant or breastfeeding. Diabetics are also exempted, as are those who are menstruating.
More than fasting, the month is a time for prayer and reflection, and for doing good, especially zakat or acts of generosity or charity, including sharing food at the end of the day. The observances build up and in the last 10 days of Ramadan, some people go to the extent of observing the i-tikaf, which is a retreat, staying in the mosque for constant prayer and reflection.
For those who do not do the i-tikaf, the last part of the month is preparing for Eid’l Fitr, which will be a day of feasting and of gift-giving and of more intensive zakat or charity, with the wealthier Muslims expected to prepare large amounts of food for the poor.
What does this all mean for non-Muslims?
As we move toward more multiculturalism, appreciating the diversity of cultures in the Philippines, Ramadan becomes a time to show our cultural competence, an ability to respond to the needs of people that come about because of differences in culture.
I was alerted to these needs a few weeks back, meeting with student representatives of the dorms in UP Diliman. One of them, a Muslim graduate student, said that they appreciated one dorm that relaxed the no-cooking rule in dorms during Ramadan, just for the Muslims.
I made a note of the Muslim students and, last week, alerted the office of student housing to Ramadan coming up, and the importance of allowing the cooking, a concession for Muslim students to prepare suhoor, a meal before sunrise, and iftar, the meal at sunset to break the fast.
The suhoor is particularly challenging because it is so early in the morning. Our 7-Eleven and MiniStop places might want to consider offering a suhoor if they are in areas with many Muslims, but I think Muslims might not trust the preparation of the food which has to be halal, free of pork and pork fat, and if beef, poultry or goats and sheep the animals should have been slaughtered with proper rituals.
Given that there will be no other meal until sunset, schools and offices should be more understanding if the Muslim students and staff are not as energetic or alert, especially toward the end of the day. It also helps for the school or company clinic to offer nutritional advice. I’ve found Muslims unaware that they are exempted from fasting if they are diabetic. Others were not taught some basics around fasting, like avoiding fried and fatty foods during the predawn meal because they can cause indigestion the rest of the day.
Sugary foods should also be avoided during suhoor because blood sugar levels will drop quickly, and lead to easy fatigue. Coffee and even more so, tea, should also be avoided because it causes frequent urination, depleting the body’s minerals, which can’t be replaced until sunset.
There’s growing health consciousness too in what to eat during the permitted times. Bananas are good because they supply potassium, magnesium and carbohydrates. High-fiber foods are also advised during the early morning meal because they are lower to digest, which means you don’t get hungry too soon. Examples of high-fiber foods are fruits and vegetables, grains and cereals. These include breads, rolls and crackers made from whole grains.
When I was working with a nonprofit health organization that did research and training, we were always conscious about not scheduling workshops during Ramadan, especially if the event was going to be in Mindanao, or if we intended to invite participants from Indonesia, Malaysia or other countries with predominantly Muslim populations.
If there was no choice but to hold a workshop during Ramadan, we would make sure the Muslim participants could have their suhoor and iftar, as well as breaks so they could pray. Although there is that exemption for traveling Muslims, many still opt to fast during the month.
The importance given to Ramadan should challenge Christians as well, given how fasting has slowly disappeared from our traditions, even during Lent. It’s striking how all major religions have fasting, a recognition of how material deprivation can actually strengthen people spiritually. I’ve always felt fasting is most valuable because it is voluntary hunger, and therefore allows us to think of those who have no choice but to go hungry.
There are still debates about the physical benefits of fasting. Proponents have long lists of what fasting can do, from weight loss to detoxifying the body. Health professionals do not always agree about these claims, pointing out dangers as well from fasting, especially if someone is suffering from conditions like diabetes.
Generally though, no health professional will say that fasting is unhealthy, when done by healthy people. It still all boils down to a kind of physical and mental discipline, a way of saying no, and yet affirming values about charity and generosity, about emptying our bodies to allow a spiritual “meal” of sorts.
Returning to Ramadan, I hope that it becomes a time to build bridges between Muslims and Christians, a time for mutual solidarity and looking for the many values that we do share. Being more considerate in schools and offices to the needs of our fasting Muslims will be an important way of showing solidarity.
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