Twenty years ago, I experienced my first Ramadan. It was one of the most difficult experiences in my life. I had only recently converted to Islam and was struggling to find the balance in my life as a new Muslim post 9/11. While the Muslim community was supportive, my friends and family simply didn’t understand what I was doing and because Ramadan was foreign to them, they couldn’t relate. This made fasting exponentially more difficult for me. My first Ramadan, I couldn’t tolerate being around anyone who was eating or drinking, and the thought of cooking was physically painful. Smelling the aroma of any foods was worse. I eagerly and impatiently looked forward to breaking my fast each night and I counted the days until it was over. I wasn’t sure I would have the strength to fast the month of Ramadan ever again, and I was so wrong.
What Is Ramadan?
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. There are over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world who observe Ramadan, the holiest month of the year, and the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is a time for renewal, community, sacrifice, and generosity. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to give more in charity and to spend their free time in worship and remembrance of God. Muslims observe Ramadan by fasting from dawn until sunset, abstaining from food, water, sexual intercourse, and smoking, and avoiding gossiping and idle time. After sunset, families, and friends gather at their homes, or at the mosque to break their fast at a meal called iftar.
Every Muslim who has reached puberty and who is of sound mind and in good health is required to fast. People with chronic illnesses, pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, and women who have recently given birth or who are on their menses are not required to fast.
Instead, they may feed a fasting person or make up the missed days at a later time. Some Muslims who are unable to fast pay about $12 a day for every day of fasting they miss to feed those living in poverty. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar based, over the course of 30 years, Ramadan will eventually fall during every season. It falls about 10-11 days sooner each year on the Gregorian calendar. This year, Ramadan will begin at sundown around April 1 or 2, and will last 29-30 days depending on the moon sighting (where scholars must view the new moon with the naked eye to determine if the month has ended). The end of the month of Ramadan is marked by a three-day celebration called Eid ul Fitr or Festival of Breaking the Fast.
The Holy Qur’an is broken into 30 parts and each night of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to attend special prayers at the mosque where one part of the Holy Qur’an is recited by memory. This means that the fasting person is staying up late each night and waking up early to ensure they have time to hydrate and eat a proper meal before the fast resumes at dawn.
Supporting Fasting Students and Colleagues in the Music Classroom
There are many ways music educators can support their colleagues and students who may be fasting. Modeling empathy is a key element. Ask yourself how you would feel if you woke up at 4:30 a.m. to eat and observe prayer, then go to school or work all day with no food or water throughout the entire day. How would you feel by noon? How would you feel by 3:30 p.m.? Then consider that the fast doesn’t end until nearly 8 p.m. (depending on the region and location). Do not ask a student to disclose their religious affiliation. Assume that there are Muslims in your classrooms and set expectations and boundaries for every one to adhere to. Some students may be fasting for the first time, and the first fast can be challenging for people of all ages. Please model empathy and compassion.
It is not uncommon for a fasting person to experience fatigue, dehydration, weakness, or to be easily irritated. Offer modifications for your fasting students. Singing, standing, talking, and playing instruments expend a lot of energy that a fasting person may not have. Allow students to sit if they need to sit. Allow students to take a break if they need a break. Consider offering a quiet place for the student to go during lunch. While most students may grow accustomed to being around someone who is eating, sometimes this can be overwhelming. Some students may also need a quiet place to pray or meditate.
Consider your performance calendar and try to avoid scheduling any concerts during the month of Ramadan. Understand that if you must schedule a concert during Ramadan, especially in the evening, some Muslim students may not be able to attend due to the observance of nightly prayers. If this cannot be avoided, ensure that the student has ample time to break their fast properly, on time, with dates and water either before the concert begins, or during the concert. An extra step would be to ensure they have a proper meal to eat. Avoid hosting parties with food during the day. If you must have food, consider dietary restrictions, consider an alternative for the student who may be fasting. Reach out to the student’s adults and communicate what would be the best practice in this situation. Finally, understand that the spiritual benefits of fasting greatly outweigh any physical discomforts. This month is a time of renewal, hope, and mercy and while Ramadan can be emotionally and physically taxing, most Muslims welcome this time with joy and enthusiasm.
As I reflect on twenty years of observing Ramadan, I firmly believe in strongly advocating for the hidden groups of marginalized people in our classrooms. I believe that being cognizant that there are Muslims of all ages abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours and knowing how to support them is one of many ways to create safe spaces for all people in our classrooms and performance spaces. Twenty years later, I welcome this blessed time with joy and eagerness, and I look forward to the sense of belonging and community that Muslims experience during Ramadan.