Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan?

As a kid growing up, whenever I heard about Cat Stevens, it was accompanied by such, I don't know, disappointment. Cat Stevens used to be this wonderful singer, I was led to believe, until he "got weird" and left music. "Got weird," as it turns out, meant he converted to Islam.

I mention this because, for years, I pictured Stevens living in a cave somewhere — when actually he's been raising a family in England. And the thing I've enjoyed most about researching Ramadan has been revisiting some of Stevens' Islamic music. Stevens goes by Yusuf Islam now, and has put out a couple of really sweet children's albums. One of them contains a song called "Ramadan Moon" (Click here to hear the recording and to watch a little video.) Another of my favorites is called "A is for Allah," which he wrote to introduce his baby daughter to the Arabic alphabet. Both are definitely going on my next  religious playlist.

Anyway, Ramadan is the latest addition to my Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents. By way of a reminder: "Allah" is the Arabic word for God, and refers to the same God worshipped by Jews and Christians. Muslims believe in both the Old Testament and New Testament, but they also believe that their prophet, Muhammad, was the last prophet — and that the Qur'an, which Muhammad penned himself, is as much the word of God as the Bible and Torah.

Holiday: Ramadan

Pronounced: Rah-muh-don

Religion Represented: Islam

Date: This holiday takes place during the Islamic calendar's ninth month, which is called — you guessed it — Ramadan.  This year, it started July 9 and ends Aug. 7.

Celebrates: Charity, self-restraint and devotion to Allah.

Related Holiday: Eid ul-Fitr, which occurs at the end of Ramadan.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: The month of Ramadan is a solid 10, says Shahzad Chaudhry, a nonreligious dad raised in a Pakistani household (who also happens to be one of my favorite readers). "Not only does the entire country celebrate," Chaudhry said of Pakistan, "but food-based businesses are even closed during the fasting hours to avoid temptation." The Qur'an makes direct reference to Ramadan, and Muhammad himself celebrated the holiday until his death.

Star of the Show: Allah

Guest-Starring: The moon


Back Story: Ramadan is considered the holiest month because it was during Ramadan that Allah was said to have first contacted Muhammad. The Qur'an, as a result, makes direct reference to Ramadan and its rituals. Every year, from the first sight of the waxing crescent moon until the the last sight of the waning crescent, Muslims throughout the world remember what Allah is said to have told Muhammad about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. In this way, Muslims are keenly aware of the moon's changes throughout Ramadan.

Associated Literary Passages: The Qu'ran Chapter 2: Section 23

The Rituals: Although those who are unable to fast — kids, elderly, pregnant women — are specifically excluded from the requirement, the Qur'an makes clear the fasting period (which includes water) is to extend during daylight hours and that Muslims should also abstain from sex and other worldly temptations as a way to show thanks to Allah and understand what it's like to "go without." During this period, Muslims eat two meals a day during Ramadan — one before dawn and the other after sundown. They pray as much as possible above and beyond the usual five prayers a day, and they are encouraged to read the Qur'an all the way through. In addition, Ramadan is supposed to be about feeding the poor; forgiving those who have hurt you and asking forgiveness from those you have hurt; and trying to be a better person.

The Challenges: Ramadan is a much celebrated and revered holiday among Muslims, but — as my husband (who grew up in Saudi Arabia) said — it is also very hard. People who fast get weak and fatigued easily. Keeping your mind on school or work is a challenge, to say the least, and often downright uncomfortable. The only life saver is, at the end of each day, when the sun goes down, Muslims break their fasts with dates and then eat meals that taste, well, flipping amazing after a whole day of nothing. (Dates are the way Muhammad himself broke his fast.) But, truly, the most "fun" part of the holiday occurs at the end of Ramadan — with Eid ul-Fitr.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Ramadan is a great time to do some star-gazing with your kids, but more to the point, it's a great time to give to food pantries and other charities that feed the poor. You might talk a little about the idea of fasting and point out how difficult it can be for people to go that long without food — and how millions of poor people around the globe must fast out of necessity. Also, for the fun of it, check out some Islamic music — "Ramadan Moon" and "A is for Allah," for example — and look up some of the movies I recommended here. Oh, and I would absolutely check out a book about Ramadan. These are my favorites:

Night of the Moon, by Hena Kahan. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better narrative story for young children about Ramadan than this one — which tells the sweet story of a Muslim-American girl named Yasmeen at Ramadan time. The illustrations (by Julie Paschkis) are fun and beautiful, and there is an actual story involved — rather than a dry recitation of facts. The book also has the added benefit of teaching kids about the cycle of the moon — which often is lost on young kids and can spark lots of other interesting conversations.

Ramadan by Susan L. Douglass is good for kids ages about 6 and up — and, frankly, for adults as well. Although there is no narrative here, Douglass' book still ranks high on my list, enhanced by interesting illustrations (by Jeni Reeves). So many holiday books seem more intent on teaching kids the proper language of the culture than making kids connect with the text. Douglass' Ramadan does things just right. She packs in so much great (and accurate!) information but uses clear, gentle language appropriate for little ones.

Celebrating Ramadan, by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith. This is an excellent introductory course for older children and, again, even adults. It's illustrated with photographs from the life of a 9-year-old New Jersey boy at Ramadan. All the pictures are real, and depict he and his family as they make their way through the long period of fasting and the holiday Eid ul-Fitr. I really enjoyed this book, and the kid is so darn cute — I couldn't help but fall in love with him.


Click here for more entries from my Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

This post originally appeared in July 2012.