What Ramadan Means to Muslims: 4 Essential Reads

Women pray at a mosque during the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on May 6 in Bali, Indonesia.  AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

Women pray at a mosque during the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on May 6 in Bali, Indonesia. AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world will not eat or drink from dawn to sunset. Muslims believe that the sacred text of Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the final 10 nights of Ramadan.

Here are four ways to understand what Ramadan means for Muslims, and in particular for American Muslims.

1. Importance of Ramadan

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. Each pillar denotes an obligation of living a good Muslim life. The others include reciting the Muslim profession of faith, daily prayer, giving alms to the poor and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mohammad Hassan Khalil, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University, explains that the Quran states that fasting was prescribed for Muslims so that they could be conscious of God. He writes,

“By abstaining from things that people tend to take for granted (such as water), it is believed, one may be moved to reflect on the purpose of life and grow closer to the creator and sustainer of all existence.”

He also notes that for many Muslims, fasting is a spiritual act that allows them to understand the condition of the poor and thus develop more empathy.

2. Halal food

During Ramadan, when breaking fast, Muslims will eat only foods that are permissible under Islamic law. The Arabic word for such foods, writes religion scholar Myriam Renaud, is “halal.”

Renaud explains that Islamic law draws on three religious sources to determine which foods are halal. These include “passages in the Quran, the sayings and customs of the Prophet Muhammad, which were written down by his followers and are called ‘Hadith’ and rulings by recognized religious scholars.”

In the United States, some states such as California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas restrict the use of halal label for foods that meet Islamic religious requirements. Various Muslim organizations also oversee the production and certification of halal products, she writes.

3. Puerto Rican Muslims

In Puerto Rico, where many have been reverting to the religion of their ancestors – Islam – Ramadan could mean combining their identity as a Puerto Rican and as a Muslim.

Ken Chitwood, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, explainsthat Muslims first came to Puerto Rico as part of the transatlantic colonial exchange between Spain, Portugal and the New World. There is evidence, he writes, of the first Muslims arriving somewhere around the 16th century.

In his research, he found Puerto Rican Muslims in search of a “Boricua Islamidad” – “a unique Puerto Rican Muslim identity that resists complete assimilation to Arab cultural norms even as it reimagines and expands what it means to be Puerto Rican and a Muslim.”

He saw the expression of this identity in the food as Puerto Rican Muslims broke fast – “a light Puerto Rican meal of tostones – twice-fried plantains.”

4. Jefferson’s Quran

Ramadan dinner at White House in 2018.  AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Ramadan dinner at White House in 2018. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

With an estimated 3.3 million American Muslims, Ramadan is celebrated each year at the White House, except for one year in 2017. Scholar Denise A. Spellberg explains that the tradition was started by Hillary Clinton when she was the first lady.

She writes that “Islam’s presence in North America dates to the founding of the nation, and even earlier.” Among the most notable of the key American Founding Fathers who demonstrated an interest in the Muslim faith was Thomas Jefferson. Her research shows that Jefferson bought a copy of the Quran as a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, 11 years before drafting the Declaration of Independence. And as she says,

“The purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation’s early, robust view of religious pluralism.”

KALPANA JAIN is a Senior Religion and Ethics Editor.


INDIA: Phoolon Wali Holi

Holi, known as the Festival of Colors, is a popular Hindu festival celebrated in India and surrounding areas. Colors and water are thrown on each other, amidst loud music and drums to celebrate. Kieran Mellor, the videographer, comments on his work “Since witnessing the insane celebrations of Holi inside Banke Bihari Temple in Vrindavan, I knew that these celebrations deserved their own little film. Hours before the temple doors open, thousands upon thousands of devotees gather to take part in the 20 minute flower and colour throwing celebration of Phoolon Wali Holi. As the doors open, an unstoppable surge begins as the crowd funnels inside and the chanting and applause becomes thunderous. Many people carry offerings which they will bring to the front of the temple to devote to the deities, others pray as they enter through stone archways. For me, however, the most intense part comes when the entire temple unites in raising their hands, and yelling in unison as colours and flowers surround them.”

How an Ancient Islamic Holiday Became Uniquely Caribbean

Hosay procession in St. James.  Nicholas Laughlin ,  CC BY-NC-SA

Hosay procession in St. James. Nicholas LaughlinCC BY-NC-SA

A throng of Trinidadians line up along the streets of St. James and Cedros to admire the vibrant floats with beautifully bedecked models of mausoleums. Their destination is the waters of the Caribbean, where the crowds will push them out to float.

This is part of the Hosay commemorations, a religious ritual performed by Trinidadian Muslims, that I have observed as part of the research for my forthcoming book on Islam in Latin America and the Caribbean.

What fascinates me is how a practice from India has been transformed into something uniquely Caribbean.

Re-enacting tragedy

During the 10 days of the Islamic month of Muharram, Shiite Muslims around the world remember the martyrdom of Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was killed in a battle in Karbala, today’s Iraq, some 1,338 years ago. For Shiite Muslims Hussein is the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad.

Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, is marked by public mourning and a re-enactment of the tragedy. Shiite Muslims put on passion plays that include inflicting suffering, as a way to remember Hussein. In Iraq, Shiite are known to beat themselves with swords. In India, mourners whip themselves with sharp blades. Some Shiite also visit Hussein’s shrine in Iraq.

Ashura procession in Pakistan.  Diariocritico de Venezuela ,  CC BY

Ashura procession in Pakistan. Diariocritico de VenezuelaCC BY

The commemoration has also become a symbol for the broader Shiite struggle for justice as a minority in the global Muslim community.

Early history

In Trinidad, the 100,000 Muslims who make up 5 percent of the island’s total population, celebrate the day of Ashura, as Hosay – the name derived from “Hussein.”

The first Hosay festival was held in 1854, just over a decade after the first Indian Muslims began to arrive from India to work on the island’s sugar plantations.

But Trinidad at the time was under British colonial rule and large public gatherings were not permitted. In 1884, the British authorities issued a prohibition against Hosay commemorations. Approximately 30,000 people took to the streets, in Mon Repos, in the south, to protest against the ordinance. Shots fired to disperse the crowd killed 22 and injured over 100. The ordinance was later overturned.

The “Hosay Massacre” or “Muharram Massacre,” however, lives in people’s memories.

Colorful floats of Trinidad

These days, Hosay celebrations in St. James and Cedros not only recall Hussein, but also those killed during the 1884 Hosay riots. Rather than recreate the events through self-flagellation or other forms of suffering, however, people in Trinidad create bright and beautiful floats, called “tadjahs,” that parade through the streets to the sea.

The tadjah, a colorful model of a mausoleum.  Nicholas Laughlin ,  CC BY-NC-SA

The tadjah, a colorful model of a mausoleum. Nicholas LaughlinCC BY-NC-SA

Each tadjah is constructed of wood, paper, bamboo and tinsel. Ranging from a height of 10 to 30 feet, the floats are accompanied by people parading along and others playing drums, just as is the practice in India’s northern city of Lucknow. Meant to reflect the resting place of Shiite martyrs, the tadjahs resemble mausoleums in India. To many, their domes might be a reminder of the Taj Mahal.

Walking ahead of the tadjahs are two men bearing crescent moon shapes, one in red and the other in green. These symbolize the deaths of Hussein and his brother Hassan – the red being Hussein’s blood and the green symbolizing the supposed poisoning of Hassan.

The elaborateness of the tadjahs continues to increase each year and has become somewhat of a status symbol among the families that sponsor them.

A bit carnival, a bit Ashura

Trinidad’s Hosay brings in a more carnival-like joy to a somber remembrance.  Nicholas Laughlin ,  CC BY-NC-SA

Trinidad’s Hosay brings in a more carnival-like joy to a somber remembrance. Nicholas LaughlinCC BY-NC-SA

While the festival is certainly a somber one in terms of its tribute, it is also a joyous occasion where families celebrate with loud music and don festive attire. This has led some to compare Hosay to Trinidad’s world-famous carnival with its accompanying “joie de vivre.”

But there are also those who believe that the occasion should be a more somber remembrance of the martydom of Hussein. More conservative Muslims in Trinidad have made attempts to “reform” such celebrations. These Muslims believe local customs should be more in line with global commemorations like those in Iraq or India.

What I saw in the festival was an assertion of both the Indian and Trinidadian identity. For Shiite Muslims, who have dealt with oppression and ostracism – both in the past and in the present – it is a means of claiming their space as a minority in Trinidadian culture and resisting being pushed to the margins. At the same time, with its carnival-like feel, the festival could not be more Trinidadian.

Indeed, the celebrations each year illustrate how Indian and Trinidadian rituals and material culture merged to create a unique festival.

KEN CHITWOOD is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas and Global Islam at the University of Florida


MEXICO: Día de los Muertos

Since filmmaker Kevin Clerc was a kid, it always been his dream to see "El dia de los Muertos" in Mexico. So last October him and a friend traveled there to witness this special day. They spent 3 weeks travelling around Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Campeche states. Clerc made this video to show how this country has its own culture and its own history that you will find nowhere else in the world. He says that "El dia de los Muertos" is an event everybody should see once in their life as it really represents the Mexican soul.