Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year, begins on July 9th. During the month, Muslims around the world will fast during daylight hours, abstaining from food, drink -- even water -- from 90 minutes before sunrise until sunset.
Ramadan ends August 8-11 with the observance of Eid Al-Fitr, a holy day in which Muslims celebrate the end of the fast with prayers and feasting. Prior to the day of Eid, during the last days of Ramadan, each Muslim family offers a food donation to the poor to ensure that all can participate in the celebration.
But for Muslims, the physical rigors of fasting are intended to produce a profound, deeper result: an opportunity to evaluate their spiritual lives in the light of Islamic teaching.
Chaplain (Major) Khallid Shabazz, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade Chaplain, is a Muslim Imam who has served in the Army as a Chaplain for the past 13 years. In a recent interview, Chaplain Shabazz discussed the significance of the observance and the unique issues of religious accommodation for Muslim Soldiers during Ramadan.
Question: Why does fasting play such a central role in the observance of Ramadan?
Chaplain Shabazz: Fasting is a spiritual practice to be found in many religions. The great leaders within various faiths, people such as Buddha, Moses and Jesus, practiced quite rigorous fasting as a preliminary to attaining their first experience of spiritual enlightenment and communion with God.
Fasting in Islam does not just consist of refraining from eating and drinking, but from every kind of selfish desire and wrong-doing. As The Holy Quran states, "O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil." (The Holy Quran, 2:183).
The fast is not merely of the body, but essentially that of the spirit as well. The physical fast is a symbol and outward expression of the real, inner fast.
Ramadan is a period of seeking to receive God's mercy, grace and forgiveness. It is a time where Muslims are face to face with their lower desires and seek to combat them with a dedication and love for God. It is a time where Muslims give and sacrifice all that is around them to ensure that those who have less than they do are taken care of.
As a young soldier I was afforded the time and accommodation to practice my religion and it made me a better Soldier. Because of that experience, I became a chaplain. I wanted to help other Soldiers - regardless of their faith tradition -- to help them fulfill their responsibilities to God, however they choose to serve him.
Question: What is Ramadan, and why is it so significant to our Muslim Soldiers?
Chaplain Shabazz: Ramadan has three significant objectives: to promote nearness to God; increase self- control; and encourage charity for those in need.
Question: How does it promote nearness to God for Muslims?
Chaplain Shabazz: As we bear the rigors of fasting purely for the sake of him who created us, knowing and feeling that he can see all our actions, however secret, it intensifies the consciousness of God in our hearts, resulting in a higher spiritual experience.
Question: How does self-control contribute to that process?
Chaplain Shabazz: As we develop and strengthen our powers of self-control, it enables us to resist wrongful desires and bad habits, and therefore "guard against evil." By fasting, we refrain from the natural human urges to satisfy one's appetite. We exercise our ability of self-restraint and apply that discipline to our everyday life to bring about self-improvement.
Question: What role does charity play?
Chaplain Shabazz: Charity and generosity are especially urged during Ramadan. We learn to give, and not to take. The deprivation of fasting makes us sympathize with the suffering of others, gives us a desire to alleviate it, and makes us remember the blessings of life which we normally take for granted.
Question: What religious accommodation issues do Muslim Soldiers typically have as they observe Ramadan?
Chaplain Shabazz: The issues involving religious accommodation during the month of Ramadan typically occur in three areas: training exercises in the field; physical training; and proper hydration. Commanders can help Muslims Soldiers fulfill their religious requirements during Ramadan by accommodating them in a couple of ways.
First, when possible, commanders can allow Muslim Soldiers to participate in light duty when on an exercise or in the field, as opposed to strenuous duty.
Second, they can grant liberal leave during part or all of the 30-day fasting period, and grant practicing Muslim Soldiers three days of leave for Eid-Al-Fitr, the celebration that ends the 30-day fast of Ramadan.
Third, commanders can exempt Muslim Soldiers from physical training or grant them limited time outdoors during the fasting period. It's important to keep in mind that Soldiers will spend approximately 16 hours with no food or water during daylight hours, so ensuring proper hydration is a serious concern.
Finally, commanders can allow observing Muslim Soldiers time to observe the five daily prayers at a Mosque or at a designated prayer location during this time.
Question: How can non-Muslims show sensitivity and hospitality to support our Muslim Soldiers are they observe Ramadan?
Chaplain Shabazz: Family Readiness Groups, Chaplain Coffee groups or commanders can support Muslim Soldiers by volunteering to provide a meal at the end of the fast day for a Muslim Soldier. Non-Muslims can invite a Muslim Soldier over to eat at the end of the fast day during Ramadan. That goes a long way toward making the Soldier feel a part of the Army team.
Also, at the end of the 30-day fast period there is a three-day celebration during which time it's appropriate for non- Muslims to give gifts to Muslim families and their children. While Ramadan and Christmas differ in meaning to Muslims and Christians, the act of gift giving is similar between the two faiths and is appreciated in much the same way. Gift-giving during Ramadan also goes a long way toward helping our Muslim Soldiers feel more a part of the team.