Since April 2 and until May 2, Israel’s Muslim community is observing the month of Ramadan, in which people fast for about 30 days from dawn to dusk. This year the Ramadan falls in the same period as the national holidays in Israel, and at a time when many are celebrating in restaurants that have reopened in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. In the Hebrew-language media Ramadan is usually mentioned mainly in the context of security precautions (and this year health-related ones as well). But for many citizens it’s a spiritually and physically challenging period, which requires recognition and consideration from those around them. One first, simple step can be the greeting رمضان كريم ("Ramadan Kareem”, Have a generous Ramadan) for those who are fasting. But don’t wish them a “happy holiday.” Following are another eight questions and answers about the fast.
Why do people fast on Ramadan?
Ramadan is the holiest month for Muslims throughout the world, and one of the five Pillars of Islam, which obligates every adult Muslim man and woman. This month symbolizes renewal, spiritual discipline and a profound observation of the connection to God and to religion. Refraining from food and drink during the course of the day serves as a reminder of the poverty and need in the world, and reminds the fasters how it feels to be hungry and thirsty, in order to arouse a sense of compassion for the needy and impoverished populations.
In light of the difficult conditions of the fast during the course of the day, the fasters’ hidden spiritual powers, tolerance, and willpower are tested. Ramadan is also an opportunity for a change in eating and sleeping habits, and other social practices.
Is drinking water permitted?
According to the Muslim religion, the obligation to fast on Ramadan applies to every Muslim man and woman from the age of puberty (usually about 12 or 13), and includes refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, taking medications and engaging in sexual relations. So that drinking water during the fast is also forbidden.
A burning issue this year throughout the Muslim world, due to the coronavirus pandemic, is whether being vaccinated is considered breaking the Ramadan fast. Many fatwa (which issue nonbinding legal opinions) and sharia (Islamic law) organizations and councils, along with major scientific journals such as The Lancet and the BMJ, explained to the Muslim community all over the world that the vaccination does not interfere with fasting, and it’s even recommended to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
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In Israel this issue was less relevant this year, in light of the relative success of the vaccination campaign in the Arab community before the start of Ramadan.
So who receives an exemption from the fast?
In special cases an exemption is given to childless elderly people, the chronically ill, those who are forced to travel great distances, women who are nursing, pregnant, or menstruating. Some of them are obligated to fast at a later date of their choice during the year, and those who are unable to complete the fast are obligated to pay a kaffara (atonement) donation to charity, based on conditions and calculations that are updated every year according to the local Islamic fatwa council in every country.
In Israel the sum is calculated by the Islamic fatwa council. The money for each day of fasting that was missed during the month is donated to the poor and to weak populations, usually the equivalent of a basic meal for one person.
Do Bedouin fast too?
Israel’s Muslim population totals about 1.6 million people, who constitute about 17.9 percent of the country’s inhabitants. These include Muslim Circassians and the Bedouin living in communities in the Galilee and the northern Negev. So yes, the Bedouin also fast during Ramadan.
What does an ordinary day during Ramadan look like?
The fast day begins with a pre-dawn meal called سحور (suhoor), when it is customary to eat light foods, to take medications if necessary and to drink water. According to Israel time this meal is supposed to end at about 4:50 A.M., before sunrise, and afterwards it is forbidden to eat or drink until the end of the fast. This meal is not obligatory, and many people prefer to continue sleeping. At dawn they say the morning prayer, and then Muslims are divided into two groups – those who go back to sleep until morning and those who continue to pray and to read verses from the Koran until the day begins.
During the month of Ramadan the routine doesn’t stop and those who are fasting continue to work or study as usual. At the end of the day, every evening, there is a meal to break the fast called إفطار (iftar). It is eaten close to the time of the fourth prayer, at about 7:20 P.M.
So if you pick up the phone to call a colleague from work or school who is fasting on Ramadan, you can reasonably assume that they won’t answer during those hours. That’s why it’s preferable to refrain from that in advance in order to avoid embarrassment for both parties.
After the iftar meal, the fifth prayer of the day, the evening prayer, takes place, immediately followed by a special prayer called التراويح (the taraweeh). This prayer takes place only during Ramadan, and is considered a particularly long prayer that could continue into the night.
So a month of fasting is a great way to lose weight, isn’t it?
On the contrary. The month of Ramadan is known for frequently being a factor in weight gain. That’s because of the large meal that is eaten at the end of the day of fasting, combined with the general lack of physical activity during the day. The abundance of sweets and other special foods also make dieting very challenging during this period.
Are there other customs besides fasting that are observed during the Ramadan?
Although the fast and the accompanying fatigue make it hard to maintain the routine, Ramadan also has a festive atmosphere that many people await eagerly every year. It is customary to decorate the houses with lights, and if for example you travel on Highway 65 during this period in the evening hours, look at the sides of the road. You’ll see homes decorated with numerous shapes and lights. During Ramadan it is also customary to invite many relatives and friends to the meals for breaking the fast, which contributes to the festive atmosphere.
Another important event during Ramadan, which is marked during one of the odd-numbered days beginning from the 21st of the month until the end and usually on the 27th day of Ramadan (in other words, on the 21st, 23rd, 27th or 29th of Ramadan), is ليلة القدر ("Laylat al-Qadr," the Night of Destiny). Muslims believe that during the month of Ramadan the Prophet Mohammed received the first verses of the Koran from the angel Gabriel, and this is the holiest night in Islam and “better than 1,000 months” (Sura 97, verse 3). Therefore the gates of heaven are opened on that night and God is especially receptive to the requests of the worshippers. In Israel it is customary for Muslims to go up to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City that night, in order to pray and to read verses from the Koran until morning.
After Laylat al-Qadr, in other words the fast day that is followed by an all-night prayer session, it is especially hard to wake up. You should be considerate of your Muslim friends who follow that custom.
What is the greeting for Ramadan?
Due to the festive atmosphere on Ramadan some believe that it’s a holiday, and therefore mistakenly tend to wish Muslims a “happy holiday.” That is a common mistake that should be corrected. The month of Ramadan is a month of fasting, not a holiday, and therefore it is customary to greet people by saying "رَمَضان كَريم" (“Ramadan Kareem”) or "رَمَضان مُبارَك" (“Ramadan Mubarak,” Have a blessed Ramadan). After the conclusion of Ramadan comes عيد الفِطر (Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast), a holiday that lasts for three days, and then you can definitely bless the celebrants with "عيد سعيد" (“Eid Saeed,” Have a happy festival).
Haneen Shibli is a doctoral student in the School of Public Health School at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who researches the accessibility of health services to the Bedouin population in the south. She is participating in the “Haaretz 21” initiative for promoting voices and stories from Israel’s Arab society.
This story was originally published in April, 2021.