Fasting gets all the attention during Ramadan, but it is in fact only a warmup for the real task of focused worship. For many Muslims, the true focal point of Ramadan is the optional evening tarawih prayer (at least for Sunni Muslims like myself – Shia Muslims generally do not offer them). When asked what the most meaningful part of Ramadan is, many of my friends cite the congregational tarawih prayer.
During the obligatory five daily prayers, Muslims recite various verses of the Qur’an. Tarawih prayers are extended nighttime versions of these prayers, after dinner and the last obligatory prayer of the evening, during which the imam reads a full 1/30th (a juz in Arabic) of the Qur’an, with the goal of finishing the entire book during Ramadan.
Here in America, imams with the most eloquent Arabic pronunciation are sought out for the largest congregations, and mosques are nearly as overflowing as they are during the Friday prayer. As tarawih is between 2-5 times as long as the longest obligatory prayer, it can take up to an hour to complete (most of it standing), making it somewhat of a physical challenge for an already fast-weary body.
Because there are Muslims all over the world, fasting has occurred in many different places, climates, and circumstances. But what happens when the boundaries are pushed? For example, in October a Muslim astronaut will be grappling with the prospect of fasting while in orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Obviously, this brings up many questions: Does hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour trigger the travel exemption? If not, at what time does the fast begin and end? If you went by sunrises and sunsets while on the ISS, you could have 16 mini-fasts in an Earth day, which wouldn’t be much of a spiritual exercise. (The Muslim astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, will fast according to his home time zone in Malaysia.)
Last year, there was another Ramadan connundrum: Iranian-American astronaut Anoushe Ansari found herself in the position (200 miles above the earth) where she would be the first Muslim to spot the crescent moon and thus start the month of Ramadan. A viewing from space, however, would probably not be accepted for earth-bound Muslims (although if enough of them could be space tourists, they might make an exception).
The prospect of Muslims in space gets more complicated when you consider settlement on the moon and other planets. A Martian day is only slightly longer than ours (37 minutes), but a day on Venus is 243 Earth days. And how do you spot the Ramadan moon when you’re standing on top of it? When you pray on another planet, which way do you face? (One suggested answer: create a “new Mecca” on that planet — similar to the one in the sci-fi movie Pitch Black — and pray towards that.)
While fasting is considered one of the mandatory pillars of Islam, there are several circumstances where it is acceptable for a Muslim not to fast. The ill, pre-pubescent children, and menstruating or nursing women are all automatically exempt, and those who are traveling are given leeway as well (though it can be argued that a 20-mile journey on camelback in the deserts of Arabia isn’t comparable to the standard daily commute). Other than those exceptions, it is generally understood that fasting is required of Muslims during Ramadan.
Therefore, you might assume that every Muslim you come across in your daily life (that is, if you come across Muslims at all) is fasting. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.
It’s not something you’ll hear most Muslims admit freely, but not all Muslims practice their religion the same way – much like adherents of any other faith. Quite often Ramadan is the time you’ll learn you have a Muslim coworker, when he or she politely declines the office lunch that everyone else is gathering in the conference room for. It might also be a time when that same Muslim coworker bites his tongue as the fellow Muslim he knows in the office is chowing down with the rest of them.
“Ramadan is the (month) in which the Qur’an was sent down, as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong).” (Qur’an 2:185)
Aside from fasting, the importance of reflecting on the Qur’an, and reading it in its entirety if possible, is central to Ramadan. It was in this month that the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad is said to have begun. For many busy Muslims who might not read the Qur’an regularly, Ramadan offers that opportunity to reconnect with a conduit that Muslims believe represents a direct relationship between humans and their Creator.
For most people who are not Muslim, however, their introduction to the Qur’an is somewhat different. It usually takes the shape of belligerent verses offered through soundbites as proof of Islam’s inherent violent and/or intolerant nature. Both Muslim extremists and those seeking to demonize Islam use the same tactics. This constant attempt to redefine the central theme of the Qur’an has had a corrosive effect on the relationships between Muslims and their neighbors.