The Fast: Gaining Strength by Doing Without

Difficult as it is, fasting is designed not as a punishment but as a blessing.

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Islam is not a religion of abstinence. Muslims are encouraged by the Koran to enjoy their lives on Earth and the blessings received from God. But the Koran also preaches moderation and discipline of the passions and appetite. And like other pillars of Islam, fasting stands as both a personal gesture and a unifying event in which Muslims show obedience to God.

Difficult as it is, fasting is designed not as a punishment but as a blessing. By doing without, believers strengthen the mind's mastery over the body; they focus on human weakness and enhance their compassion for those who are hungry and thirsty. The Koran says: "Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you so you can gain more spiritual awareness."

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, when the first Koranic verses were revealed to Muhammad, is the time set aside for fasting. Because the Muslim calendar is tied to lunar movements, Ramadan occurs on different dates each year. But whatever the season, Ramadan begins at sunset after the first sighting of a new moon. As prescribed by the Koran, fasting starts the following dawn, "when it becomes possible to tell a white thread from a black one." From sunup to last light, Muslims may not eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sexual intercourse. In the summer months, in countries close to the equator, the fasting period may last as long as 16 hours.

Strict adherence to the fast varies from country to country. Those exempt from the fast may include pregnant or nursing women, travelers, and people suffering from serious physical or mental illness. A day missed fasting during Ramadan can be made up within the year.

In countries that adhere closely to Ramadan observances, the pace of life noticeably slows, particularly in business and government. Western travelers to Islamic countries are advised to take the reduced schedule into account, since as Jacques Jomier points out in his book How to Understand Islam, "Except in individual cases, people only go through the motions of working."

When radio stations broadcast the cannon shot that signals sunset, families gather to share a small snack called the iftar, then, after evening prayers, a joyful feast at home or in the mosque. Many of the faithful try to read the entire Koran during this month, and recitations of the holy book ring out from many homes.

As the evening of the 29th of Ramadan approaches, and with it the end of daylight fasts, Muslims prepare for Eid al-Fitr, a celebratory festival lasting three days. The festival begins only when official authorities sight the new moon that signals the beginning of the next month. The traditional foods, exchange of gifts, and special salat in mosques resemble the Christian celebration of Christmas.