Time is on Our Side

In his statement to recognize the beginning of the month of fasting for Muslims in America and world wide, President Obama mentioned that a practice of ritual fasting does occur in many faith traditions. While this is true, each tradition has different goals and each has different forms.

The form of the fast in is Islam is consistently observed across the entire planet. That’s a pretty big deal if you think about it amongst those who are able in a community of 1.3 billion Muslims. They all fast the same way: there is no Sunni Muslim fast versus some Shi’ah Muslim fast. The Sufis don’t fast one and the ultraconservative literalists observe another kind of fast. And while there are some really interesting differences that happen when the fasting day is over, I will wait to about those after looking at some of the basic about form.

Day one of the fasting month is best described as “the almost day.” We are almost into the fast and yet we are almost like the preceding non-fasting days. That is because the body has not yet changed as it will soon against the rigors of the month long rite. So it doesn’t feel or act in fasting mode.

One of my friends posted that he finished off his daughter’s breakfast after she went to school because, well, on the almost day or days, we forget that we are not supposed to do those things regarding food and drink that we ordinarily do. Some of these habits are for good reason like not wanting to waste. It may seem odd, but this is such an age old problem that the jurist (the fuqaha) have even determined that unintentional eating or drinking from forgetfulness does not break the fast. You get to fast and eat too!

Last night I went to my local mosque. I can tell I will have lots to say about that as the month goes on, because it is one of those places where the women’s entrance is waaaay around the back, next to the trash containers in the darkened areas. I have many thoughts already but let us first go over some of those basic, starting with some of the time factors.


The Islamic calendar is still lunar, based on the cycles of the moon. The wax and wanes of the moon are so evident; she was understandably one of the first markers humans used for the cycles of passing time. By the time scientists realized, for one thing, that the earth is NOT the center of the universe with the sun revolving around it, the problem with the full solar year needed to be addressed. That is because 12 cycles of the moon, from thin crescent or hilal to full, and back again, still do not complete the earth’s rotation around the sun. That cycle is 11 (and one quarter) days longer than the moon’s.

The short of that is: the beginning of the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, the month of Ramadan, is 11 days earlier each year. If you do the math, it takes 33 years before the fasting month begins at the same time as it does this year. It also means the fasting is observed at different times of the year, traipsing through all four seasons (for those of us who have four). Many people never seem to notice with the same details that a fasting Muslim must notice, the sun set and sunrise moves every day; especially for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

The daily observance of the fast begins with a pre-dawn meal, called Suhur. The time for the end of suhur corresponds precisely with the time for the beginning of the five daily prayers, salat-al-fajrFajr (for short) starts approximately one and one half hour before sun rise. So suhur must be about two hours or so before the sun rises each day.

Some Muslims are staunch observers of the imsak, which means the cessation of eating with an additional 20 minute buffer. I’m not one of them. The reasoning behind imsak is to be sure NEVER to be eating at the time when the fast should have begun. I did observe it in my younger more literalist days, but over time and with five children, now adults, whom I helped through their first of many fasts, I really got closer to Allah’s mercy. I recognized that 14 seconds too long on that last bite of food or that drink of water to take prescription medicine was NOT the end all of the fasting ritual. So, I gladly gave up imsak as the time marker and stuck with the time of fajr.

In today’s world, Muslims all over have printed schedules to mark the precise time for suhur, the time of the fajr prayer (as well as the other 4 prayers), the time of sun rise, and the time formaghrib, the prayer at sun set. Especially maghrib, because that’s when the fasting ends. Precise, detailed. When my kids were younger they would check the calendar and get the sunset time programmed in their heads. Each day they would announce its arrival loudly, “It’s time!” Down to the minute. No quibbling about it.

In those many, many places in the world with mosques on every corner or at least in every neighborhood, the adhan, or call for prayer at the end of the fasting day serves better than the loud voice of children, but I am happy with my memory in the context of the minority status of Islam in America. Hmm, now that I think about it, maybe I should have been more rigid and insisted that my children learn to call the adhan. That way I could have that instead of the child-like announcement, but then, it would not have been special, now would it?

Between suhur and iftar (which means “break fast” or the meal at fast breaking time) sun set, there can be no consumption: no food, no drink—not even water, no smoking, for those who smoke, and no marital sex, for those who are married or sexually active. That’s a pretty big challenge if you think about it. Me, I’m a grazer. I tend not to eat more than 2 meals a day but I eat all the time a little bit at a time, like animals in the field: grazing. Even now as I type this, I can think of something I would like to put in my mouth: to chew, to munch, to suck on, to eat, or to drink, I’m very oral if you ask me.

Long, long hours pass in each day through out the month or Ramadan when eating is no longer a careless, thoughtless habit. Eating becomes intentional. (Hence the focus on food before the month begins.) Much more attention goes into what you eat when you cannot eat all of the time. I personally cook more and even think of new recipes when eating is less a graze and more a maze through my mind. With many hours of the day to think of what you will eat next instead of actually eating, some pretty interesting combinations occur to me. So I experiment with them.

The further good news is that none of these concoctions are a disappointment. You have more appreciation for what ever you eat when you don’t get to do it all the time. This appreciation is one of the bigger intentions of the ritual fast in Islam. It is not in the Qur’an, the holy book of divine revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, nor did the Prophet himself say it, but over the 14 centuries since the revelation and prophet hood, Islamic thinkers and scholars have reflected on this natural tendency.

When you do not eat all the time, you really come to appreciate two things, 1) the privilege of being able to eat when the observant day of fasting is over; and 2) what it must be like for those who are poor, whose limited means causes them to experience the pangs of hunger on a regular basis. One of the reasons for fasting in Islam is to build empathy for others without privilege, and to be humbled to greater appreciation.

This year, the 9th month of the lunar calendar falls when our days in the North are the longest. That means we have a long, long day for our appreciation of things and for remembering those less fortunate. When that 9th month falls in our winter months the fasting day is done by 4-4:30. At my age, I have seen the cycle through the full of the year, but I may not live to see it through the next full of the year, a sobering thought, to keep me faithful if nothing else.

Thank you Allah for this meal. And thank You for all the other meals, some which I gulped down, carelessly, never remembering Your mercy and grace to me and mine while eating them. Thank You for the chance to write about my experiences in worship of You, as a way of remembering and as a kind of sharing of my love for You.

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