Not So Fast! Ramadan’s Lessons For The Rest of Us

Last week marked the beginning of a very important observance among the world’s (estimated 1.7 billion) Muslims: the month of Ramadan.

Just as Lent is observed as a forty-day period of sacrifice, reflection and prayer for Christians, and as Yom Kippur serves a similar purpose of atonement and introspection for those of the Jewish faith, Ramadan is a 30-day undertaking during which Muslims pray and fast, abstaining from food, drink and “other luxuries” during the daytime.

Why fasting?
The act of fasting is said to “focus the heart and mind away from worldly activities,” and redirect attention to self-reformation, spiritual cleansing and enlightenment. Adult Muslims (except for pregnant and nursing women, long distance travelers, and Olympic athletes*) do not take food or drink (or smoke or have sex) from dawn until nighttime during the 29 (or 30) days of Ramadan.

Imagine, if you will, going without food or water — or coffee (!) — from 5:30 in the morning until after 8:30 at night!

So? I’m not a Muslim. What does this have to do with me?
The word Ramadan (the name of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar) itself comes from the Arabic “ramida” or “ar-ramad,” which means scorching heat or dryness — perhaps a reference to the idea that the fast “scorches” away human sins.

At any rate, the definition seems especially apt this year, when the beginning of the monthlong Ramadan observance  comes amidst the hottest Iowa July since 1936. It is very challenging for some American Muslims because of the heat wave that most of the United States is facing right now – the worst heat wave in decades.

Muslims are allowed to eat and drink again the whole night long, after the sun sets and until the sun rises again. And if you take a look at what (and how) folks break the fast during Ramadan, and make it through the following sweltering day of fasting, you may get some good ideas for coping with your own (fast-free! coffee-filled!) summer days.

Not so fast!
To the faithful, Ramadan is an opportunity to concentrate on prayer, meditation and worship, and to practice acts of kindness and charity.

But Ramadan isn’t solely about fasting and doing without. Of course, there is also a social aspect to Ramadan, involving the preparation of special foods and inviting people for Iftar, the break-the-fast meal after sunset.

The Iftar meal starts with the eating of several dates to break the fast – just as the Quran says the prophet Muhammad used to do.  Foods that are filled with water — like squash and watermelon — are served, to help rehydrate the body. Cool fruit juices and smoothies like this Melon Cooler provide refreshment, along with vitamins and antioxidants.

The fast-breaking Iftar often features hearty stews (that cook all day without help from a fasting cook), like a Chicken Tagine. Spiced meats cook outside on the grill, keeping the kitchen cooler, like these Aleppo-Pepper Chicken Kebabs or this Yogurt-Marinated Grilled Leg of Lamb.

And Middle Eastern cuisine features lots of cooling dips and spreads pack protein from tahini, yogurt, or nuts, while also bringing extra flavor and spice to liven up vegetables and breads:

Throw in a salad or two (how about Chickpea Salad with Sun-Dried Tomatoes?) and a dessert made with fruit and honey, and you’ve got a feast to cool you off and keep your hunger at bay for hours.

Breakfast: most important meal of the day?
Your mother always said so. But, if you are fasting during the day, breaking-the-fast in the evening is critically important — as is eating a good meal upon waking, to keep your energy and spirits up. The pre-dawn Ramadan meal is called Suhoor, and includes eggs and fruit, and very little salt, to avoid thirst during the coming day.

Bottom line: If you’re going to be in and out of the heat during the daylight hours, a hearty breakfast and a refreshing evening meal are two important ways to “bookend” your day.

Blessing in disguise?
Finally, in addition to enjoying the culinary wisdom of Ramadan feasting, there are benefits to its fasting component, as well. A United Arab Emirates study recently found that regular fasting can lower bad cholesterol (triglycerides and LDLs, for those keeping score at home), and raise good cholesterol (HDLs), lowering risk of heart disease.

Photo credit: “Ramadan Iftar,” by raasiel on Flickr.

*As I understand it, if one cannot observe Ramadan during the designated days due to other responsibilities that preclude your participation, you are permitted to “make up” those days at your earliest possible opportunity (i.e., after you are finished with your Olympic obligations).