Celebrating Ramadan in Hawaii

Ramadan featureFor 29 to 30 days each year, Muslims all over the world devote themselves to Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam. This year, Ramadan began on July 8 and will run through Aug. 7. During Ramadan, a fast is practiced during daylight hours, based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon. Practitioners also refrain from smoking, engaging in sexual activity and swearing.

Nazeehah Khan, a member of the student-founded Islamic Society at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, spoke to being808 about her personal Ramadan experiences, Ramadan’s effects on her health and the challenges of being a Muslim in Hawaii.

being808: At what age did you begin fasting for Ramadan? Do you feel the fasting gets easier with age/experience?
NK: My fasting experience began from around the time I was in the 1st grade, where I would fast from sunrise until about noon on the weekends to better transition into the obligatory sunrise to sunset fast. Many Muslim children do this as a transition into a full day of fasting, which is not obligatory until they are older. I began keeping full days in about the 3rd grade, although I wouldn’t do all 30 days.

By the time I was in the 5th grade, I began attempting to fast all 30 days consecutively. My parents allowed me to fast at my own pace, and at that age, I was eager to partake in the occasion. I do feel fasting gets easier with age and experience. When I was younger, my main focus during the month of Ramadan was abstaining from eating and drinking. Hunger was there, but it didn’t have much meaning other than for the reminder that it was for Ramadan.

I remember in the 7th grade, my teacher had asked me what the purpose of Ramadan was. To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought before that, I only knew it was one of the five pillars of Islam and that it was mandatory. At that age, I was also at the point where I was questioning everything, including what Ramadan was really all about.  I began to realize that the purpose of Ramadan was not the mere act of refraining from eating or drinking. It wasn’t just about restrictions and “do this, do that.” It was about nourishing the soul, it was about reflection and paying attention to our true essence rather than just our outward aspects. We spend so much time feeding ourselves, feeding our wants and desires, that we often forget to feed our soul. After I realized this, fasting was much more easy for me. Now it had meaning; it had purpose.

being808: Is there anything you do to prepare for Ramadan?
NK: Preparations for Ramadan normally consist of stocking up on groceries before the month begins, as doing grocery shopping isn’t exactly exciting when you haven’t consumed anything since sunrise. Ramadan preparation also consists of mental preparation, though. Along with refraining from food and drink, it is also necessary to refrain from anger, swearing, or anything harmful to the well-being of the person’s soul and iman (faith), really. This can be a real challenge for some people, as cussing at the slow guy in front of us on the freeway or the difficult customer service representative on the other line can become customary. It’s necessary for the person fasting to be in touch with themselves, with a state of inner peace within them resulting from their faith.

being808: How do you ensure a balanced diet during Ramadan?
NK: Ensuring a balanced diet during Ramadan is not as hard as it may seem. In fact, I think my diet coordinates better with the food pyramid during Ramadan. Instead of snacking on junk food when I get hungry, I’m having more meals to fill me up so I can better get through the day. I have more starch, vegetables, meat, etc. than I would normally have because I would otherwise lean more towards a bag of chips or candy bar. Again this differs from person to person and within different cultural contexts.

being808: Are there traditional meals eaten between sunset and dawn?
NK: It is recommended that the breaking of the fast, known as iftaar, be done with dates, as this follows the tradition of the prophet Muhammad and is known as Sunnah. The Muslim community is incredibly diverse, stemming from many cultures and traditions, so there is no particular meal that all Muslims consume between sunset and dawn. Each family, based on their own culture, eats anything of their choice. My family is Indian, so Indian food is a must all year round, including during the month of Ramadan.

being808: Does your level of physical activity change when you are fasting?
NK: It certainly does change for me. I try to take it easy and not exert myself so I can keep my energy up. Some things such as the long walks between class to class at school can’t be avoided. But I find myself taking the bus to my car, stopping to sit at shopping malls, etc., more often. However, my older brother and cousin play soccer for a team, and despite fasting for Ramadan, they would partake in all of the games without hesitation. I would go with them to their games sometimes, and sitting in the hot sun would be enough for me to have second thoughts about going to the next game. In the meantime, my brother and cousin would be sprinting on a soccer field in the midst of summer in Hawaii trying to win a game without the help of even a sip of water.

So being physically active while fasting is definitely possible, although each individual knows his or her capabilities best. As a Muslim in America, sometimes I feel as though I have to pick and choose between trying to be true to my faith and trying to assimilate into American culture. However, my brother and cousin didn’t allow the practice of their religion to become a barrier from doing something they were passionate about doing, and I feel this is an ideal example of what it really means to be a Muslim American or American Muslim.

being808: What type of health complications (if any) do you experience when fasting for Ramadan?
NK: I think it’s important to remember that anyone who suffers from an illness (e.g., diabetes) is exempt from the fast. With that said, one of the main difficulties with Ramadan is hydration, I’d say. In Hawaii, we observe fasts for about 14 hours; that’s 14 hours without water or food. The difficulty of this varies per person. However, I think it’s safe to say people’s hands readily reach for the cup of water upon breaking their fast. Even if my water intake is low all throughout the year, during the month of Ramadan, water bottles suddenly look like the fountain of youth. I would crave water, possibly because I knew I couldn’t have any.

Sleep can also be an issue for some. I have family in Vancouver who fast from about 3 a.m to 9 p.m. By the time they finish eating and praying, they only have a couple of hours to sleep until they have to eat for the next day’s fast. Fasting is not as simple as eating before sunrise and after sunset, there are also prayers to be done before, after, and throughout the fast along with each individual’s own effort to find a closeness with God while balancing work, school, etc. In the beginning of Ramadan, sleep cycles may need some adjusting as the meal times change as well.

Fortunately, I’m a fairly healthy person and my health complications are kept to a minimum while fasting, although I’m certain it is difficult for those who are older and have a bit more of a complicated situation. It is important to remember that if fasting is hazardous to your health or leading you into a life-and-death situation, you may want to reconsider fasting for 30 consecutive days or fasting at all.

being808: Have you ever been struck with an illness during Ramadan, to the point where you could not continue to fast?
NK: It’s funny that you ask this, as this is my situation right now. This is the first Ramadan where fasting may not be the best course of action for me, due to my health. I have been dealing with medical issues for the past six months which have been negatively impacting my weight and overall health, and I think it would be the wise choice if I choose not to fast on a daily basis this Ramadan. This is extremely difficult for me as last Ramadan was very beneficial to my spiritual well-being and I feel as though I’ll be missing out on an opportunity to improve my faith. However, although not abstaining from food or drink, I can still choose to abstain from other habits (anger and swearing) and try to better understand my faith better through meditation, charity, prayer, and reading.

being808: Do you experience any health benefits from fasting?
NK: I think one major health benefit from fasting is becoming aware of exactly it is you what you are eating. When fasting, we tend to choose foods which are filling, give us energy, keep us full longer, are rich in nutrients, etc. At home, we tend to avoid too many fried or greasy things, even if we normally have them. Our fasts, along with dates, are commonly opened with fruits and fruit juices, whereas I would avoid an apple at all costs on any other day. In the mornings previous to the day’s fast, there is always a plate of cut apples set on the table.

When you’ve spent almost the entire day fasting, you are bound to take more notice of what exactly you have on your plate, after eating some of it, of course. You begin to notice which foods make you feel lazy throughout the day and which ones keep your energy flowing until sunset approaches. You notice which vitamins seem to be helping you and which ones are just “meh.” We notice our dependency on prescription pills, and which ones we could do without, of course, with a doctor’s permission.

In today’s hectic world, eating has lost its significance, it’s become something we just need to do. I think fasting helps to bring its significance back and help us to realize what exactly we’re eating. Sure, there are some people who finish off the month without really caring, food is food after all. But for the more health conscious person, fasting can help to put things into perspective in regards to their nutrition and well being.

being808: When Ramadan is over, do you immediately return to your previous eating routine or is there a slow progression in incorporating meals into your day?
NK: It’s definitely a different process for everyone. Personally, returning to my previous eating routine takes a bit of time. I become more or less adjusted to the meal times and find myself waking up in the mornings feeling either ravenous or not hungry at all. After a few days, however, the previous eating routine begins to reintroduce itself. I would still catch myself craving a garden burger and telling myself “oh shucks, I can’t eat that right now,” when I actually could. So it takes some time for the mentality that you can drink and eat at any time to reintroduce itself as well. That, also, doesn’t take much time. Especially when garden burgers are your favorite.

being808: In your experience, are there any unique aspects to observing Ramadan in Hawaii as opposed to anywhere else?
NK: I haven’t observed Ramadan anywhere except for here in Hawaii, but I think one unique aspect of observing it here would be the willingness of those who aren’t Muslim to learn more about Islam and what Ramadan is. I think many people know that the number of Muslims in Hawaii don’t exactly make up a large percentage of the population. Due to this, there aren’t many people who know about practices in Islam such as Ramadan. So when I meet someone and tell them I’m fasting, their initial reaction is that of curiosity and interest. In a post-9/11 world, where Islam has been given a tainted image, I feel honored that as a Muslim, I’m given the opportunity to present a more peaceful and true image of Islam and one of its major practices to people who are being open-minded about it.

Growing up and being one of the only Muslims in my school, it was a bit difficult to tell my friends in elementary that I wasn’t eating lunch or participating in P.E because I couldn’t eat or drink during Ramadan. I remember in the 6th grade, there was even a rumor that I was anorexic because I wasn’t eating. Of course, at that age understanding fasting would be difficult for anyone, as it was for myself. So there is that issue of understanding as to what Ramadan is really about, and because the Muslim population in Hawaii isn’t as large as that of other states, there is a bit more pressure on us to accurately represent Islam to everyone we meet.

For more information on the Islamic Society at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

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