Muslim Girl in America

I'm an American girl, born and raised, and a Muslim.

Ramadan 101 – Meaning & Etiquette for Non-Muslims

on July 28, 2012

It’s that time of year again – time for Ramadan. Ramadan is my favorite month of the year. It’s more than just a month of fasting, but is also a month of prayer, reflection, and giving back. The same sense of community and excitement people may feel for Christmas is the same feeling I get during Ramadan.

It’s hard for some non-Muslims to understand how to behave toward Muslims during this month. I’ll tell you how I prefer people treat me. But first, I want to give you some background on the Ramadan. I am in no way an expert on Islam, but here’s some basic information to help you understand the month.

One of the Five Pillars. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (the others are a declaration of faith, praying 5 times a day, performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in your life, and being charitable or giving alms to the poor).

Timing. Ramadan itself is an Islamic month. The Islamic calendar differs from the standard Gregorian calendar in that it is based on lunar cycle. That means that the month and the holiday don’t fall on the same Gregorian calendar day each year. For example, Christmas is always on December 25th each year, but Eid-ul-Fitr (the holiday at the end of Ramadan) actually moves back about 10 or so days each year. Also, because it’s based on the phases of the moon, you never really know when Ramadan begins or ends until the evening before – you need to check and confirm the phase of the moon first.

Meaning. Why a month? Because we Muslims believe that the Quran, our holy book, was recited to the Prophet Muhammed by the Angel Gabriel in this month.  

Fasting. Our fasting days differ from fasting in other religions. We abstain from many things from sunrise to sundown – no eating, drinking, smoking, marital relations, etc. These days, because Ramadan is in the summer, the days are longer. Where I live, it’s about 16 hour fasting days. Yup, that’s 16 hours without food or water, but some countries have even longer days than that. I typically eat breakfast well before sunrise, and we all break fast at sunset. There are no set foods we have to eat or drink during this month, but most, if not all, Muslims tend to break fast by eating a date. Then there are the local cultural foods and beverages you may drink. In addition to dates, I love to eat pakoras (a mix of shredded & chopped vegetables mixed in a batter and deep-fried) and drink Rooh-Afza (a syrup made from roses that you either mix with water or milk and sometimes sugar).

Accidental eating. Yes, this does happen. I know I often taste food while I’m cooking it, and there have been instances where I have placed food in my mouth, remembered it was Ramadan, and spit it out quickly. In these instances, your fast is NOT broken. Intentional eating or drinking breaks a fast – and God knows which one you’ve done.

Negating fasts. Besides intentional eating or drinking, many things can negate your fast. Passing out or fainting (which, at that point, it’s not safe for you to continue fasting anyway) is one. Bleeding (and yes, that includes a female’s monthly visit from “Aunt Flo”) also negates the fast. I also try not to swear and you’re not supposed to get upset or lash out at others – in other words, you should keep your emotions and anger under control. That’s what Ramadan is about really – how to exercise control over your own life and actions. I know with all the violence occurring in parts of the world this Ramadan, it’s hard to believe that they’re fasting. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure killing another human being or ordering other humans to be killed negates a fast. Just saying.

Alternatives to fasting. Not everyone can fast. The elderly and women who are pregnant and nursing, for example, often have medication or needs that preclude them from fasting for so long each day (btw, you cannot swallow medicine either while fasting). In such an instance, you can give money for feed another person for the month of Ramadan. See what tips a fellow blogger has for nursing mothers.

Advice for Non-Muslims. As a non-Muslim, you may wonder about how you should behave around your Muslims friends or co-workers. It’s very simple: BE CONSIDERATE. That’s all. You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re eating and drinking during the day, but be considerate that someone nearby can do neither. So, if you’re having something awesome for lunch, don’t taunt them with it. It’s really that simple. And, if your Muslim friend sits down in the lunchroom with you, don’t worry about it. Obviously they knew what they were getting into, so you shouldn’t be afraid to eat your lunch – just don’t offer any to them. Truthfully, at least in my case, it’s not that I’m tempted by the food others are eating (I have long since learned to ignore my grumbling stomach during this month), but I DO mind when they shove food in front of me when I’ve already told them I was fasting. Truthfully, many non-Muslims just forget about Ramadan, even if you mention it to them, because the act of fasting in this manner is just not something they place in the front of their consciousness. Truthfully, that does hurt my feelings. Ramadan is a VERY important month for me – I do extra prayers, I get very little sleep, and my kidneys don’t thank me at the end of the month – but for me it is totally, completely, 100% worth it. As long as I am physically able, I plan to fast each Ramadan. And if you have told someone that something is important to you – Muslim or no – then they should be considerate of that.

Another piece of important advice I would give is: Never Assume, Just Ask. Most Muslims I know are more than happy to answer any questions you may have. I strongly dislike it when people assume things about me because of my religion. This stems from a traumatic 9th grade experience in Geography class, when, during a chapter on Islam, my teacher (*cough* Mrs. Tipton *cough*) decided to show Sally Field’s Not Without My Daughter to depict traditional Islamic home life. For those who don’t know, Sally marries an Iranian man who takes her to Iran, keeps her and their daughter there, beats her on a daily basis, and Sally spends the rest of the movie trying to smuggle her daughter out of the country. After the movie was over, I received many curious looks from my fellow classmates who thought I was beaten on a daily basis. WHICH I WAS NOT. It’s sad that such a situation does occur in the world, but it wasn’t my world. And for that matter, domestic abuse is not just an Islamic trait – unfortunately, that is one action that is not culturally or nationally restrictive. I also brought in a English version of the Quran for people to look at. Only about 2 or 3 people were “brave enough” to take a gander at it – they weren’t afraid of the unknown as so many others are; they faced it head on and wanted to learn more. I’m guessing those turned out to be the less racist bunch of my fellow classmates.

To sum up: I am always more than happy to answer questions. Now, it’s true that not all Muslims are like that, but just take a chance – you never know.

If you ever have any questions, please drop me a line or comment.

Thanks for reading!



2 responses to “Ramadan 101 – Meaning & Etiquette for Non-Muslims

  1. Carla says:


    Just wanted to say thanks for the article. A new friend is currently fasting and wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing anything rude!

    Thanks again 😀

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