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How we observe Ramadan in an always-on society



An end-of-Ramadan feast, October 2008
An end-of-Ramadan feast, October 2008
Photo by reway2007/Flickr (Creative Commons)

KPCC intern Yasmin Nouh rose long before dawn today to observe the start of Ramadan. As she writes, it's not as easy to observe the Islamic holy month in the United States, with its frenetic pace of life, as it is in places like Egypt and Iran, the countries in which her parents grew up.

But there are ways - and the Internet helps.

Starting today, Muslims around the world will forgo food and drink, including water, and pray more than usual with taraweeh, which in Arabic means long, extended night prayers. We'll eat after sunset, with the next dawn marking the start of a new fast. And we will continue to do this for thirty days. It’s a time of spiritual discipline and renewal.

Sounds grueling? It can be. In majority-Muslim countries, Ramadan is like a month-long Christmas - minus the feasting part - throughout the day. In Cairo, Egypt, for instance, schools are out, shop owners close their stores during daylight hours and families decorate their apartment balconies with colorful lanterns that light up the city at night.

Ramadan is different for the United States' 1.8 million Muslims. While fasting is not meant to be an excuse to slack off in our work, the month is tough, especially when our lives continue at the same pace – traffic, work, meetings, summer school classes, deadlines, and so on. It sounds burdensome, but Muslims look forward to this month every year.

And here, the Internet helps. Through social media and other online avenues, Muslims in the U.S have found ways to address common challenges often faced during Ramadan. There are blogs that offer tips, online planners and more. A few examples:

Food and fasting

During this month, Muslims are encouraged to break their fast with a simple meal in the spirit of disciplining our food intake. Nonetheless, along with a long day of fasting comes a larger evening dish that often takes longer than usual to prepare. Coupled with a day of work or taking care of kids or both, it’s not an easy task for those preparing it. Cleanup is also tough, with only a small window - an hour - between sunset prayer and the extended night-time taraweeh prayers.

Enter My Halal Kitchen, a blog that offers recipes and culinary advice. It recently featured several entries on kitchen efficiency, i.e. ways to speed up cooking iftar, the evening meal, without leaving a huge mess. Blog editor Yvonne Maffei also offers Ramadan menu planners, which aid in planning out what to cook every night and having the ingredients ahead of time.

Social media and the Quran

It was the tradition of Muhammad to read the entire Quran by the end of Ramadan. Today, some people use Twitter during Ramadan to tweet their favorite messages from the Islamic holy book. Hussein Rashid teaches Islamic Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary. A recent story in USA Today noted that in 2009, Rashid started using the #Quran hashtag on Twitter asking Muslims to tweet their favorite verses from the Quran. He expects there to be more posts this year.

Scheduling

For Muslims in the West, life during Ramadan continues to run at the same pace, so careful scheduling helps. Ramadan is not a time to slack off, by the way, and this is precisely why Muslims are encouraged to maximize what they do with their time. But it can be especially easy to forget one’s goals – whether it is to smile more, or to stop cursing, or both – when one gets caught up in assignments, rush hour traffic, screaming babies or the summer heat.

Halalify Islamic Planners created a downloadable Ramadan planner to help Muslims timetable their spiritual goals so they can better make time for extra prayers, spending on charity, increasing community service, reading the Quran, spending more time with family, etc.

Lastly, while Ramadan remains a relatively cloaked affair for the average Western Muslim, at least one national grocery chain has begun promoting Ramadan-friendly foods. In an effort to reap more Muslim customers, Whole Foods ran its first-ever Ramadan marketing campaign, where it promoted halal dinner options on its website. Halal is a term indicating that our meat is prepared under the standards set by Islamic law.

As we go about our day with empty stomachs, we'll refrain from complaining about our hunger because our souls, as much as our bodies, need replenishment, too. Ramadan is a time for us to reflect on those who have less, as relevant in the United States as it is anywhere.