Unlike Christian or Jewish holidays, there isn’t a universally accepted method to be exactly sure which day Ramadan begin. In fact, there is significant debate among Muslims in America about whether calculations or visual confirmation should be used to determine the exact date of Islamic holidays.
One school of thought on the issue follows the dictates of scientific calculations, which tell us that the new crescent moon should be visible tonight, signifying that tomorrow will be the first day of Ramadan. Others feel that an actual sighting of the moon is required to confirm the date, regardless of whether or not calculations predict it will be there. This group of people could start Ramadan tomorrow or the day afterwards.
As I previously mentioned, I am an unapologetic geek, so I abide by the calculations method. This, however, does not take away the significance for me of seeing the hilal (crescent moon) that marks the beginning of Ramadan. So tonight, just after sunset, I will look just above and to the left of where the sun set to see with my own eyes what my heart (and computer) already know to be true: Ramadan has arrived, and fasting begins tomorrow.
For anyone who has had the opportunity to travel through the Muslim world during Ramadan, you may be familiar with how festive a holiday it is, mirroring in some ways the pervasive sounds and colors of the American holiday season. Ramadan in America, however, is quite different then that. We are still in the process of creating our own uniquely American Ramadan traditions, which reflect our relative isolation, diverse countries of origin, and our predominantly American culture.
As I’ve learned in the past few years, this becomes even more important when you have children. Growing up in America, we need visual reminders of Ramadan that correlate with the Christmas ones that are so ubiquitous each winter. Some of our traditions are familiar to my parent’s generation, such as the festive evening meals enjoyed while visiting the houses of friends and family. But the generation of Muslims that were born or raised here are beginning to cobble together our own traditions, piece by piece.
It is a difficult and challenging situation this year in that my attempts at building an internal serenity for the start of Ramadan are coinciding with the anniversary of 9/11. I spend much of the whole year (every year since 9/11) dealing with the aftermath of those terrible events through my community work and writings, and in Ramadans past I’ve been able to take a break from that, however short, in order to get myself in the proper frame of mind. But not this year.
In the past, I’ve used the month of Ramadan to introduce those who are not Muslim to something I feel is truly beautiful about my religion. Most people are familiar with the external (i.e. political, cultural) aspects of Islam, but few understand the internal, more spiritual ones. Being visibly Muslim, in that you are foregoing food and drink in plain view, provided a perfect opportunity for that dialogue–assuming, of course, that the news didn’t provide a distraction.
Muslims often refer to the holy month of Ramadan, which begins this year around September 13, as if it were a guest passing through town and staying at their home. But unlike real-world guests who often overstay their welcome, the presence of this one is savored each day. In Ramadan we fast each day–this means no food, drink, or physical relations from sunrise to sunset–this is accompanied by reflections and readings from the Holy Qur’an and extra congregational prayers given at night.
It might be hard for those who aren’t Muslim to understand how we look forward to a month that seems to have a central theme of self-denial. Even those who understand the spiritual benefit of fasting might think that 30 days is pushing it a bit. But there’s more to Ramadan than just the denial of the eating and drinking instinct. Much, much more. And we’ll be getting into that during the whole month of Ramadan in this special blog.