The Month of Self-Restraint and Purification


On May 16, an estimated five million Muslims in America, and over 1.8 billion worldwide, begin the Ramadan fast. During this annual month long fast, Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sexual activity from dawn until sunset. Adherents are also required to avoid anger, arguments and frivolous or unnecessary talk.

Muslims believe that fasting is a protection against the heat of unbridled lust; is a divinely prescribed remedy for the diseases of the heart, and a vehicle for cultivating God consciousness.

Much of the injustice, evil, and gross imbalances in the world can be attributed to people who are either unable or unwilling to control their passions and desires. Fasting is a divinely ordained exercise that enable believers to master their passions so that their passions won't overwhelm or gain mastery over them.

The Ramadan fast was observed by Muslims in this hemisphere before Columbus arrived in 1492. Historical evidence indicates that the first Muslims came to American shores as explorers as early as 1178. History also records that Muslims of Africa's Mandinka nation landed in the Gulf of Mexico in 1312 and explored the American continent.

It is estimated that more than 30 percent of the millions of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims. These early Muslims brought their Islamic heritage and their adherence to the fourth pillar of Islam-the Ramadan fast.

Millions of Muslims in the U.S. fast during the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the lunar calendar) provided they have reached puberty and can do so without causing themselves physical harm.

Muslims do not observe the Ramadan fast to lose weight (although there are many health benefits in fasting) or out of a sense of tradition. Muslims fast because they believe it to be an obligation they owe to God as revealed in the Qur'an: "O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was to others before you, that you might learn self-restraint." (2: 183)

Some of the benefits of fasting are the cultivation and strengthening of qualities such as generosity, compassion and discipline, and the development of a healthy mind, body, and spirit.

Muslim communities across the United States use Ramadan's spiritual and religious climate of love and empathy to educate others about Islam. This has become especially important in the aftermath of 9-11, when Islam and Muslims are often projected in the media as synonymous with "terrorism" and "fanatic."

Although fasting in America is not as difficult as fasting in other lands where the temperature is much harsher and food and drink not as abundant, it nevertheless poses its own set of difficulties. Non-Muslim employers will usually not make any concessions or special arrangements for the fast, and non-Muslims generally don't understand Ramadan's immense significance and conduct their affairs with little regard for Muslim efforts at self-purification. Yet, after every difficulty, there is relief, and with every challenge there is an opportunity. Ramadan provides Muslims with the avenue to work on personal defects like selfishness, anger, resentment, impetuousness, and listlessness. And it is a time when the special bond of love between Muslims and all of humanity is most evident.

Steven Malik Shelton can be reached at [email protected]


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