WASHINGTON - The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is under way, and many of the world’s nearly 1.5 billion believers are taking part in this time of fasting and reflection, which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam — the basic acts required of every member of the faith.
Some non-Muslims express curiosity about one part of the observance: fasting.
WATCH : Muslims Derive Spiritual Benefit From Ramadan Fasting
“Some people always say, ‘Oh, you don’t eat for an entire month?’ No, you eat during the month but you eat at nighttime, not in the daytime. And that means no food, no water, no smoking, which is sometimes most difficult for the smokers, even more so than the eating,” Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, told VOA.
Aside from the not eating and drinking, he adds, there is a spiritual benefit in fasting.
“Muslims see it as recharging spiritual batteries that get depleted throughout the year. ... It teaches compassion for those who are less fortunate, those who can’t eat or drink through no choice of their own," Hooper said. "When you come upon a situation where you can help someone in that situation, you are far more likely to help them if you’ve experienced that.”
The young and elderly, pregnant or nursing women, the sick, and travelers have the right not to fast, although they have a duty to observe Ramadan as soon as they are able to.
Breaking fast with iftar
Every day during the holy month, as the sun goes down, the faithful break their fast with iftar, a ritual meal, often with friends and family.
In Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, Fatma Mohamed prepares assida, a porridgelike food served with stews.
“Assida is the main meal of the iftar during the month of Ramadan. It is eaten just after breaking the fast, because it is good and useful for the stomach. It is made from corn flour,” she said.
Food prices up
The focus on iftar can drive up food prices sharply.
In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, shopkeeper Khair Ul Bashar told VOA that goods cost him more during Ramadan, so he has to pass those higher costs on to his customers.
“Compared to last year, prices of edibles have increased by roughly 50 percent this year,” he said. “With the arrival of Ramadan, prices go up and that considerably affects our business.”
A Pakistani shopper who spoke with a VOA reporter said: “We see that in other communities when there is such a major event — Christmas, for example — then prices are lowered. But every year during Ramadan, we face price hikes in the commodities we buy daily.”
Many residents of the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamislo, in northern Syria, also complain about high prices.
“Not everybody is rich here. Fruits and vegetables are too expensive. Tomatoes, cucumbers are expensive. There is no control over prices,” a passing shopper told VOA at a busy market. “There should be controls over the market, especially on tea, coffee and sugar.”
Yet despite the hardships, and often with the help of charitable neighbors, most are able to enjoy the community and spirituality of these holy days.
The first day of Ramadan is determined by the sighting of the crescent moon. The monthlong observance ends with a three-day festival, the feast of Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam’s major holidays and celebrations.