One of the first (and only) things I learned to say in Arabic was “Eid Mubarak!” or “Blessed Eid!” Before starting on Cambly, I knew nothing of this holy time of year celebrated by millions of Muslims across the world, starting with the month of Ramadan and ending with Eid al-Fitr. Thousands of students and almost as many questions later, I’ve gotten a glimpse into what it means to celebrate the month of Ramadan and the joy of Eid.
“I’m so grateful for all the students I’ve met over the years who have helped me learn not only about the history of this holy time of year, but also for including me…everyday is an opportunity to do something good.”
Wait, not even water?
Ramadan is observed by millions of Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, and personal reflection. The month of Ramadan celebrates the first revelation of the Quran, Islam’s holy text, to Prophet Muhammed. The observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars, or major practices, of Islam. Ramadan lasts twenty-nine to thirty days in the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, so the actual start date of Ramadan varies from year to year. Muslims not only avoid food and drink (even water!) during this time, but also smoking and “sinful “behavior, including any negative thoughts or speech like complaining or gossiping. This is the time to devote to prayer and to the study of the Quran.
My students have told me that this is their favorite time of the year. They explained that this period of personal reflection and study of the Quran brings them closer to God. Moreover, they said that fasting all day, having no food or water, makes them feel like they understand what it’s like to be hungry, to be thirsty, to be poor…to be without. Many Muslims say that the month of Ramadan helps them sacrifice, practice self-discipline, and empathize with and be generous to those who are less fortunate. Fasting also decreases daily distractions and helps one focus on a relationship with God.
“Ramadan is a time of peace…and usually most of the people in this month forgive each other.”
During this time of year, Muslims are encouraged to forgive and to seek forgiveness. I asked my favorite student from Saudi Arabia why. She said, “Ramadan is a time of peace, so if we have problems with friends, sisters or relatives, this month is a good opportunity to pick up the phone and say, ‘Ramadan Mubarak!’ and usually most of the people in this month forgive each other and accept apologies immediately.” I love this advice.
Where is everybody? And topics to be mindful of during Ramadan.
“I was puzzled until a student explained to me that Ramadan is a time that requires sacrifice… not even a piece of gum or water to swallow a pill.”
I remember my first year of tutoring during the month of Ramadan. Most of my students were from Saudi Arabia at that time. I used to ask everyone what their favorite hobby was and every single student said, “Sleeping!” I thought to myself, “Sleeping isn’t a hobby!” I was puzzled until a student explained to me that Ramadan is a time that requires sacrifice, even of sleep. You wake up well before sunrise so that you can eat a meal and drink a lot of water, because you won’t be able to have anything until sunset. We’re talking nothing, not even a piece of gum or water to swallow a pill. I was thinking that this “no complaining” thing wouldn’t fly in my house.
I realized pretty early on that my usual questions about favorite foods and “Would you rather eat pizza or burgers” probably weren’t the best things to ask at this time. I also avoided the IELTS topic about smoking in case students were craving a cigarette. No one ever complained, but I didn’t want to remind them of anything they couldn’t have!
You may notice that your schedule around this time of year isn’t quite as full as it usually is. While many students take time off from classes to focus on the month of Ramadan, others might show up regularly. As Ramadan starts on different dates from year to year, sometimes it falls right in the middle of summer. Can you imagine a 16-hour stretch in desert heat with no water? Many students dutifully come to class anyway, despite feeling tired and hungry. I felt ashamed that my attempts at fasting ended about 2 hours after I started. The lure of the coffee pot was just too strong.
What’s a typical day during Ramadan like?
For most, it’s like a normal day of going to work or about your usual duties, except there’s no lunch break, no coffee break, no snacks, no water.
My students wake up very early in the morning, before dawn, so that they can eat a meal that basically has to last all day! At dawn, it’s prayer time and then for some people, it’s back to bed to get a bit more sleep. However, many students said they like to stay up to enjoy this quiet time to read the Quran and pray more. They use this time to really connect with God and study the holy text.
For most, it’s like a normal day of going to work or about your usual duties, except there’s no lunch break, no coffee break, no snacks, no water. When the sun goes down, it’s time to break the fast with water and dates–traditionally, 3– before the evening prayers are recited. Then, everyone gathers to eat a delicious meal with family and loved ones.
Special traditional foods are often served, such as Sambusas, little savory pies filled with meat, cheese, vegetables or other delicious fillings. Desserts which are usually only served for special occasions find a place on the table, as well as soup, salads, and other dishes. Water is usually the beverage of choice but Arabic coffee, milk and juice are often served as well.
After the main meal, it’s off to bed for a few hours of sleep before waking up to a new day.
Eid al-Fitr: from fast to feast, it’s time to party!
After a month of fasting, contemplation and charitable giving, it’s time for Eid Al-Fitr! This festive celebration marks the end of the month of Ramadan and friends and family share special dishes, sweet foods and give gifts to children, family, friends and the needy. New clothing is often purchased to wear for Eid, as looking your best is encouraged. Fresh clothes for a fresh beginning!
During this time, many Muslim countries close businesses and schools so that everyone can enjoy the festivities and visit with family and friends. Neighbors might visit your house and bring special food to share with you. Children may receive chocolate, toys or money. This is a time of thankfulness and happiness!
Without getting into sensitive topic territory, we can learn so much about other people just by asking about what’s going on in their hearts.
Students have shared photos of the colorful decorations they’ve put up for Eid, the gifts they’ve wrapped for little brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and needy children. They’ve virtually “invited” me to dinner to break the fast with them and I’ve heard countless children tell me their favorite thing about Eid is receiving money! The students I spoke with all said the same thing, that the money given to a child for Eid can be used for anything. Dozens of kids told me they were going to spend it all on candy! I’m not sure that’s what their parents had in mind, but I won’t tell.
So while students are celebrating and feasting, we may not see as many reservations or Priority Hours. Don’t worry, your favorite students will return soon and they’ll be ready to dive back into their English studies after the holidays. You might want to ask your students how they feel after a month of fasting, prayer and giving. They may be sad that this incredible experience is over for another year. Or they might tell you that they feel as though they have been reborn and that their soul feels refreshed. Without getting into sensitive topic territory, we can learn so much about other people just by asking about what’s going on in their hearts.
I’m so grateful for all the students I’ve met over the years who have helped me learn not only about the history of this holy time of year, but also for including me in their rituals and celebrations and for telling me how this special time makes them feel. How every day is an opportunity to do something good for another human being, to give even when you feel like you have nothing, and to forgive with an open heart even when you think you can’t. Regardless of religion, to give of yourself for the purpose of humility, charity and empathy is truly a beautiful thing. So shukran, thank you, to all of those who have inspired me, taught me and shared what it’s like to experience Ramadan and Eid.
What are some of the things you’ve learned from your students about Ramadan and Eid? What surprised you? Let us know in the comments!
Lynn is an ESL Supertutor for Cambly, the author of the published children’s book titled “Fatty McButterpants and The Magic Peanut”, and a major dog lover. She has been a Cambly tutor for 6 years and her other great loves include French pressed coffee and her miniature American Eskimo Daphne!