This October, fasting turns to feasting

As September draws to a close, Queen’s Muslim community prepares for Eid ul-Fitr and the conclusion of Ramadan

Members of Queen’s University Muslim Students’ Association serve up a meal after sundown.
Members of Queen’s University Muslim Students’ Association serve up a meal after sundown.

For the almost one billion Muslims in the world, next week marks the end of a long journey of reflection, piety, charity, bonding and fasting. It is the end of the month of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month in the Islamic calendar.

During the 30 days of Ramadan—which this year happens to fall throughout the entire month of September—Muslims all over the world take part in a daily fast lasting from dawn until sunset. Between those hours, they abstain from all food, liquids (including water), sex and smoking.

Forough Jahanbakhsh, a religious studies professor at Queen’s who teaches a course called “Islam in the Modern World,” said Ramadan is important for Muslims because it was during this time the Prophet Muhammed received the first revelation. The archangel Gabriel appeared to him at his home in the holy city of Makkah. This marked the origin of the Islamic faith.

It’s for this reason Muslims are most devoted to their faith and to God during Ramadan. Fasting is an expression of their devotion.

Jahanbakhsh said there’s tremendous social and economic significance to fasting, and that it’s through the act of self denial that one comes to truly appreciate God and partake in self-reflection.

“This month of fasting is supposed to help individuals inspect their lives,” she said. “When you abstain from food you realize, more than before, the bounty God has given you—the blessing God has given you,” she said.

Fasting, she emphasized, is not intended to harm your health or be perilous in any way. Jahanbakhsh said she has only fasted once during Ramadan because of health issues. Abstaining from food and liquids is only one aspect of the fast—the month of Ramadan is meant to exemplify one’s charity and devotion to the community, she said.

“Worship has two dimensions,” she said. “It is a matter between the individual and God and the individual and society. This is best shown during the month of Ramadan. You are supposed to give more than you did before to others.” In conjunction with fasting and giving, Muslims are expected to reflect and pray more extensively throughout Ramadan. The Qur’an, the religious text of Islam, is typically divided into 30 sections, which are read daily. The goal is to be able to recite the entire Qur’an by the end of the month.

Jahanbakhsh said it is after this period of introspection and piety that the Muslim faith reaches a kind of zenith.

“All the gates of heaven are open and God’s forgiveness is just pouring down from it,” she said.

After the month of Ramadan comes the largest celebration of the year, the Eid al-Fitr. Usually referred to simply as Eid, the feast arrives after the thirty days of fasting with much fanfare, as the word “Eid” means feast or festival. But the meaning of “Fitr” holds a greater significance within Islam.

Jahanbakhsh describes “Fitr” as meaning “return.” After the month of fasting it is believed that individuals return to the original state of spiritual purity in which they were born.

“Each human is born with this pure and innocent nature,” she said. “They are born an individual being.” Jahanbakhsh said the atmosphere during Ramadan is wonderfully jovial and warm.

“Ramadan is like having a guest come to your house. The whole character of the house changes,” she said. “And when it goes, it’s kind of sad.”

Safiah Chowdhury, ArtSci ’11 and external liaison for the Queen’s University Muslim Students’ Association (QUMSA), said it’s the unity of all Muslims, especially at meals, during the month that makes it special.

“All Muslims are eating at the exact same time. You really feel the community,” she said.

Every year, QUMSA—which has over 120 participants in its weekly prayers—organizes meals and prayer sessions for Ramadan. After dusk, they have what is called iftar, followed by prayers known as taraweeh. Families in the Kingston community volunteer to make the meals, which are organized by Kingston’s mosque, the Islamic Centre of Kingston.

In the mornings, members of QUMSA will gather before dawn for suhoor, the only meal they will have before iftar after sunset.

Isra Rafiq, ArtSci ’09 and co-chair of QUMSA, said the suhoor is a good way to connect with people in the Muslim community.

“It’s a really good time to bond,” she said.

For Eid, QUMSA will go to the mosque for prayer and celebration.

“Everybody hugs and everybody’s so happy,” Rafiq added.

She said non-Muslim Queen’s students are often curious about the details of their fasting, adding that it can be difficult turning down coffee dates and lunch invitations. She also said it was especially difficult at the beginning of the year when many new social relationships are forming.

For most Muslims though, the fast is not as difficult as it might seem.

“I don’t find it hard to go about my day,” said Chowdhury, who even completed a 30 kilometre bike ride during the fast.

Chowdhury said there are over 400 Muslim students at Queen’s and that they have gained much more recognition within Queen’s in recent years. Cafeterias, the JDUC and the Lazy Scholar now post the times for meals outside, and Halal food is now offered by Sodexo.

But, Chowdhury said, some professors will not permit students to leave class for the breaking of the fast, which can be difficult for students going all day without food or water.

“They have a set time and I guess they won’t adjust it,” she said.

As Queen’s takes part in Homecoming celebrations this weekend, the Muslim community will be anticipating the grand finale of their holy month. The days leading up to the Eid are the most important part of the fast, Chowdhury said.

“The last nights are the most holy part of Ramadan.” Eid this year falls on Oct. 1 and, for Chowdhury, it’s this day that is most special for the Islamic community.

“It’s a time that brings pretty much all Muslims together.”

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