As the Islamic month of fasting continues, family ties, community values and charitable efforts grow and strengthen through practicing spiritual discipline (Image source: iStock)

By Helen Karakulak | @helen_karakulak and Michelle Wakim | @MichelleWakim

The technicalities of fasting for Ramadan may summon shock or spark misconceptions, but the practice is rooted in spiritual discipline to invoke positive behaviours and compassion.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is the month of fasting. Adult Muslims, who are physically and mentally able, choose to fast, refraining from food or drink.

A pre-fast meal, known as Suhur, is eaten before dawn. Fast is broken at sunset, typically with water, dates, and a shared meal known as Iftar. 

According to the 2016 Australian Census, Islam was the most prominent non-Christian religion with approximately 600,000 people self-identifying as Muslim. Despite this, an understanding of when or why people choose to fast during Ramadan is not common knowledge among non-Muslims.

Food blogger and Flinders University student, Meera Elmasri, believes it’s important to spread reliable and accurate information about Ramadan to help inform others.

“Most people I’ve met know very little to nothing about it. I know this one person that when I said I was Muslim, they replied, ‘Oh, what country is that?’

“So, I think it is pretty important to share as many resources as I can regarding Ramadan. I want to use these resources to clear up any misconceptions people have about Islam,” she said.

“I would love for people to understand what Ramadan is and to respect a Muslim person’s decision in participating…I want Ramadan to be respected in the Australian community, and we do not want pity for not eating and drinking.”

While non-Muslim understandings of Ramadan tend to fixate on fasting and hunger, Director of UniSA’s Centre for Islamic Thought and Education, Professor Mohamad Abdalla, affirms the purpose of the fast is ultimately spiritual reformation, not starvation.

“Fasting is meant to create a sense of discipline within us and is intended to enhance and engender qualities which otherwise would be neglected, such as patience, perseverance, compassion and empathy,” he said.

“The idea that we can restrain ourselves from eating and drinking during the day, things that everybody loves to do, is testimony to human willpower.”

This routine spiritual discipline can foster a connection to Islamic culture for Muslims who may be travelling internationally or have moved to a new country, Professor Abdalla explains.

“The philosophy, if you like, behind the actual fast is spiritual upliftment…therefore, Muslims who migrate to countries like Australia who may find themselves isolated, or may not feel a sense of belonging, I would argue benefit tremendously from fasting because of those spiritual connections it allows them to have.

“Part of Ramadan is also the strengthening of not only family ties but community ties,” he said.

“We all live busy lives and seldom do families have dinner together, so what Ramadan does is, in a way, forces that family to all sit together every night for the next month to break their fast, Iftar, together.

“We used to have Iftar every Friday night at [UniSA’s] Magill campus where we had staff, students and their families. We wanted to create an atmosphere especially for the students that don’t have families, and that was awesome.”

Meera agrees that community and family is tremendously important for her during Ramadan.

“My family’s schedules are usually all over the place, so we rarely get the opportunity to eat dinner together during other times of the year,” she said.

“On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights the whole family gets together at someone’s house to break our fast. I have a big family so this is the best part of Ramadan for me.”

The 2016 Australian Census also showed that Islam had a median age of 27 years old, one of the youngest across religions, as opposed to a median of 44 years for Christianity and Judaism.

For Muslims on either side of the median, but particularly younger children, partaking in Ramadan is optional and different accommodations are made for those in different situations.

“It is our choice to partake in Ramadan. It’s not forced upon us. It is a religious decision that should not be judged,” Meera said.

“It’s not compulsory for children, equally it’s not compulsory for people who are sick, on medication, pregnant women, the elderly, or those travelling long distance. They don’t have to fast,” Professor Abdulla said.

“What happens in Muslim families is there’s an introductory fast, so a child who’s six might see people fasting around them and he or she might say they want to fast, and the mother might say, ‘ok, so you fast for half an hour or one hour’.

“It’s a gradual process, a very gentle process, and when they see this peer group pressure, so to speak, with their friends, family, mums and dads fasting, they want to try it also, so that’s what happens,” he said.

Both Meera and Professor Abdulla agree the focus should be drawn away from ideas of starvation, and instead highlight what can be learnt from the practice of Ramadan.

Meera uses her Instagram food review account as a platform to share the joy and celebration of Ramadan, experiences many non-Muslims are unaware of.

“I hope to portray the sense of community, humour and carefree side of Ramadan and Muslims that maybe they have not seen before,” Meera said.

“I try and share as much as I can of my experience of Ramadan because it’s a really happy and celebrated month in my family and I think people should see that side of it as well,” she said.

Through his work in the community, and specifically at UniSA, Professor Abdulla also brings attention to sharing these experiences. Prior to COVID-19, he participated in an Iftar held at Magill campus, inviting non-Muslim colleagues.

“What might be useful I think post-COVID is if they arrange, maybe even once a week, a special type of Iftar, especially for International students and their colleagues. It doesn’t have to be Muslim only.

“What Ramadan can teach us all is this sense of togetherness. As human beings, often more than our physicality, skin colour and our gender, ethnicities and languages, ultimately, we’re all from the same species. We are all humans,” Professor Abdulla said.

“If we can connect so well in Ramadan, I think we can also do it outside of Ramadan if we really try harder.”