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.

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr?

Eid Boys

Ramadan… is… over. And you know what that means: 30 days without food, drink, sex and everything else worth living for has finally — FINALLY! — come to end for millions of Muslims around the world. This is a huge accomplishment which deserves a huge party, which is exactly the purpose of Eid ul-Fitr. I have to say, and I'm not trying to be flippant here, I don't know how marriages, friendships or even business partnerships stay together in Islamic communties. I get so seriously bitchy after going hungry for only an hour or two, I cannot imagine maintaining even basic civility after 12. I would be one of those Ramadan-ragers, for sure. (And just think of the 200,000 Muslims who live in Sweden, where it's light 18 hours a day in the summer? THOSE POOR PEOPLE!)

On the other hand, and no offense to Catholics, but Muslims make Lent look like child play. They're going to give up one stickin' thing in the name of Jesus — and THEY EVEN GET TO CHOOSE IT? Nuh-uh. No way. I'm calling shenanigans. Plus, tons of Lent-observers just use it as motivation to diet anyway. (By a show of hands, how many people do you know who give up chocolate or fatty foods for Lent? I rest my case.)

Anyhow, all's I'm saying is you have to hand it to those crazy sons-of-bitch Muslims for hanging in there for a whole month. For showing just how selfless a person can be. Even if they do cheat once in a while.) Muslims deserve this party, and I hope they're having the time of their lives. Eid Mubarak, everyone!

Holiday: Eid ul-Fitr (pronounced: EED uhl-FIT-er)

Literal Translation: "Festivity for breaking the fast"

Religion Represented: Islam

Not to be Confused With: Eid al-Adha

Date: Aug. 19

Celebrates: The end of Ramadan

On a Scale of 1 to 10: A solid 10

Back Story: Ramadan is considered the holiest month because it was during Ramadan that Allah was said to have first contacted the prophet 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. While the Qur'an never mentions Eid ul-Fitr, it was a holiday celebrated by Muhammad and is considered (by most) as just as holy.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

The Food and Fun: In many ways, Eid ul-Fitr is a lot like Christmas. Everyone wears the best clothes they own (and often receive new clothing as gifts). They decorate their homes, cook huge feasts and exchange presents. Sometimes feasts will be laid out on rugs in front of houses, so people can wander from one home to the next, trying out a little of everything. In this way, Eid creates a communal atmosphere, where the fortunate and the unfortunate mix together. Giving to the poor and unfortuante is not only emphasized, it is required. Charity is carried out in numerous ways. Some give money, others time. It is customary in many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to put together baskets of food and leave them on people's doorsteps, or buy gifts for children and then hand them out in the streets. Here are some pictures from this year's Eid.

The Prayer Service: Eid services are always held in huge outdoor venues, which ensure that many people can come together (again, very communal.) Muslims are required to bathe (cleanliness is extremely important in Islam, to the point where bathing facilities are often included in mosque design), dress in their finest clothes, wear perfume and arrive early at the worship service (waiting is considered a virtue.) Weather permitting, Muslims walk to the service while reciting the following: "Allahu-Akbar, Allahu-Akbar. La ila-ha ill-lallah... Wa-lilahill hamd." This translates from Arabic as: "Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest. There is no god but Allah... And all praises are for Allah."

Then comes the prayer service. Here's a video to show you what that looks like.


Watching the video made me fascianted with Muslim prayer rituals — all those hand movements and bowing and so forth. I found this great little video, narrated by an Islamic child, which shows "how to pray." Watch and learn!

Conveying Meaning to Kids: I think showing both these videos (or others like it) would be a good start; maybe even make it a game: Who can memorize the prayer positions the fastest. Kids love learning secret handshakes; seems to me this is not a whole lot different. Honestly, I think one of the best thigs we can do in our own Islamaphobic country is to familiarize our kids with Muslim people — their dress, their beliefs, and their rituals. Also, don't forget to check out the books I mentioned here.

Curious about other religious holidays? Check out the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents!

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents


We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.


Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)


Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)


Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)


Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)


Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)


Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)


Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)


Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)


Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!