Monday, July 25, 2011

Preparing for Your First Ramadan

If you have embraced Islam sometime in the last year, then you're probably preparing right now for your first Ramadan. If you've not grown up with exposure to Muslim cultures, then you might discover many new customs, habits, clothes, and foods these days. Hopefully you'll make many new friends in addition to all the spiritual benefits and blessings that come with the month of fasting.

But while many Muslims look forward to Ramadan months in advance, if this is your first you might be feeling anxious--so I'd like to offer a few tips to help ease any worries ahead of time.


Much can be said about the importance of intention (niyyah) in Islam. We're told that we need to "make intention" before beginning any act of worship, like wudhu or prayer, and this goes for fasting too. But when it comes to Ramadan, and fasting in particular, you might find that with the correct intention, you are able to focus on and commit to an act more than if you were just doing it for yourself. So remind yourself that you are fasting for the sake of Allah, to follow His commands, and to seek His mercy and forgiveness.


  • Make your intention at the beginning of Ramadan to fast for the month for the sake of Allah, seeking His forgiveness. 
  • Renew your intention daily before fajr to remind yourself why you're fasting. 
  • While you make intention, take an opportunity to review the start and end times of the fast for the day on your timetable. 

The Days of Ramadan

As soon as you can, get your hands on a prayer timetable. You're going to want to keep track of a few things during Ramadan (and all year round, so if you can get a yearly table for your area, you should.) For Ramadan, you'll want to know when it starts, the dates of certain days and nights, like which are even and which are odd, and when the 27th is, for example, when it ends, the time to start fasting and the time to stop fasting, and all prayer times throughout the day.

The First Day
It's not always possible to know ahead of time when exactly Ramadan is going to start because Muslims follow a lunar calendar for determining religious holidays. But you can have a pretty good idea. Each one of the 12 months is 29 or 30 days long, and the month before Ramadan is called Sha'ban. You'll want to find out from your local mosque when they expect Ramadan to be.
A note on moonsighting--it's unlikely that all mosques in your area will have the same start and end dates of Ramadan, because some use different criteria for sighting (or not sighting) the moon. You should pick one that you trust and stick with it. 
They might have a date confirmed already based on astronomical calculations, so you'll know when to start fasting. Or, they might tell you when the 29th of Sha'ban will be, after which they will wait to see if the moon has been spotted. If it is spotted, then Ramadan officially starts that night. You'll want to check their website or call someone who might know in order to find out, if you're not able to attend maghrib and isha prayers at the masjid yourself.
In a Muslim calendar, the night precedes the day, so the first of Ramadan will start at maghrib prayer, and taraweeh prayers will begin on that night after Isha prayer. 
If it is not spotted, then it means Sha'ban is lasting 30 days instead of 29. So do not fast on the 30th, but Ramadan will begin at maghrib the next day without any question of moon-sighting.

And don't forget to make your intention to fast for the month of Ramadan!


  • Find out when Ramadan starts by contacting a local mosque. 
  • Get a hold of their prayer timetable as soon as you can--they might publish one before Ramadan, but should definitely have one afterwards. 
  • Make plans for finding out if Ramadan has started--know which website to check, or number to call, if the date isn't already set. 

The Night of Power
The Night of Power, Laylat al-Qadr, is a special night in the last 10 nights of Ramadan when your du'aa are most likely to be answered, so you definitely want to catch this night in prayer. It will be on the last odd nights of Ramadan, so you should keep an eye on your calendar/timetable. Many people believe it is on the 27th so you might find even bigger crowds at the mosque on those nights. Be prepared, and arrive early!


  • Make a small list of things you would like to make du'aa for, either before Ramadan or when it starts. 
  • Use it to remember what you want to ask for throughout Ramadan and especially on the Night of Power (and all the nights it might be.)
  • Try to arrive early at the mosque in the last days of Ramadan--consider breaking your fast there!

The Last Day and Eid
The end of Ramadan comes with similar confusion, unless your mosque has already determined the dates. If the moon is sighted after the 29th, then Ramadan is only 29 days, and the following day will be the holiday Eid al-Fitr. If not, then you'll fast one more day and Eid will be after that. There's no fasting on Eid but lots of takbeer--saying Allaahu Akbar.

When You're Fasting

Starting the Fast
Another reason you'll want a timetable is to know what time in the morning the fast officially starts. It begins at the start time of the fajr prayer, so on your timetable that might be labeled as Fajr or possibly as Imsaak. This is probably going to be pretty early in the morning (especially during these longer summer days) but you still should get up to have a small snack or meal (called suhoor) before beginning the fast. Be sure that you're done by the time the fast begins.
A note on prayer times--they are based on the location of the sun in the sky and they will change daily and vary geographically. If you are travelling during Ramadan, you'll need to know the prayer times for all locations you'll be. You can find this online if you don't know of a mosque in the area. Many smartphones also have apps with prayer times, which you can adjust by changing your location. I use Guidance for my iPhone. 
It's a good idea to renew your intention to fast at this time as well! The food you eat at suhoor is going to last you through the morning. Drink plenty of water and avoid having too much sugar early on. If you have a habit of drinking caffeine, you might want to drink some coffee with your suhoor to avoid getting headaches during the day.


  • Drink plenty of water at suhoor time to stay hydrated throughout the day. 
  • Avoid sweets for suhoor which will make you hungry later on. 

During the Fast
While fasting you need to abstain from all food (even gum) and water, as well as marital relations. You can resume all of this at night while you're not fasting.
A note on medical conditions--if you need to take regular medications, or have an illness which might prevent you from fasting, you should see a doctor to make sure it is safe, and see if you need to adjust your medication schedule. If you are still not able to fast, then you might be able to make up the days later if it's temporary, or feed a hungry person for each day if it's permanent. 

  • Be extra-conscious of your behavior, and avoid lying, backbiting, gossip, and useless talk while fasting. 
  • Use the fast as a chance to tell people about Islam. 

Ending the Fast
As soon as the adhan is called for maghrib prayer, at sunset, you can break your fast. This is called iftaar.  There is a du'a that you should make, and it's recommended to break your fast with dates and water. Then pray maghrib and enjoy your meal, and don't forget to thank and praise Allah and ask Him for forgiveness.

It's likely that you will have many opportunities to share an iftaar with other Muslims, and I would advise you to take advantage of these opportunities as much as possible. Many mosques host iftaars, sometimes donated and sometimes for a small charge. Look out for community iftaars, or if anyone invites you to a dinner at their home. This is a great way to learn more about Islam and Muslims through interaction, time to spend with Muslim friends you know, and to make new friends, while you share in the blessings of Ramadan.


  • Learn the du'aa to say when breaking the fast. 
  • First break your fast with dates and water, and then pray maghrib before eating your meal. 
  • Eat light and small quantities of food so you still feel fresh when you go pray taraweeh!


Every night of Ramadan (starting with the 1st night, which will be before you've started fasting) there will be Taraweeh prayers during which the Qur'an will be recited, basically cover to cover over the 29-30 days. This starts after ishaa prayers at night, and will be either 8 rak'ahs or 21, recited in units of 2. There will probably be a short break after the first 4, and some people might leave after 8, or after 11, if the congregation is performing the witr prayer at that time. You can leave then, if you want, and pray witr in the masjid with the group or at home before suhoor. Or you can wait for the completion of 20 rak'ahs, followed by the 21st which will be the witr.
A note about witr--the word means "odd" and is basically a single unit of prayer, usually following 2 or more units, often separately but sometimes attached. (I.e., 2+1, or 2+2+1, etc, or sometimes 3.) This is a highly recommended prayer, in addition to the mandatory 5, which is prayed at night. It can be prayed anytime after ishaa prayer before fajr comes in, but it's recommended to pray it later, after sleeping. 
Praying Taraweeh can be really rewarding, even if this is your first Ramadan and you don't understand a word of Arabic. Try to attend as much as you can to listen to the Qur'an being recited. To help understand what is being recited, read the translation before you come. And it's a much more rewarding experience than, say, watching TV. If you have some regular shows you watch, plan ahead to record them or stream them after Ramadan, so you can spend as much time as possible during Ramadan in worship.


  • Read a translation of the passage before coming to the prayer so you'll understand more of what's being recited.
  • Bring a bottle of water to help you hydrate between the prayers. 
  • Come early so parking won't be a problem. 
  • You can pray witr at home when you get up for suhoor if you didn't pray it at the mosque. 

Days of Not Fasting

It's a reality that most women will not be fasting for a few days in Ramadan, and it's nothing to be embarrassed about. You can still attend iftaars--the other ladies will understand why you won't be fasting. For days of menstruation, you'll need to make up the fasts later in the year, before next Ramadan, so keep track of how many days of fasting you missed.
A note about menstruation--as soon as you notice it, you should break your fast. Do not pray salaah or fast during this time. You can resume fasting on a day when your period has completely finished before the time of fajr, but you can resume praying as soon as you make ghusl
If you are pregnant or nursing, it might be best to check with a scholar for the ruling on making up fasts missed due to pregnancy or nursing. There is agreement that it is permissible to break the fasts, but different opinions regarding whether to make them up or feed a person for a missed day.

If you are travelling or too sick to fast for a few days during Ramadan, then you should make up the days later in the year.


  • If you're not fasting and need to make up days, mark the days on your calendar or timetable so you know how many to make up. (Don't throw it away until you've made them all up!)
  • If you're attending an iftar and haven't been fasting, let others go first in getting food as they have been fasting. 

Eid al-Fitr

The holiday at the end of Ramadan is called Eid al-Fitr. The festivities begin after maghrib once Ramadan is officially over, by praising and glorifying Allah. It is good to repeat lots of takbeers at this time, until the Eid prayer in the morning. You should find out ahead of time where and what time the Eid prayer will be--and expect to arrive early. Whether at a mosque, convention center, hotel, or fairgrounds, traffic will probably be a problem. Planning to arrive early (at least 30 minutes before prayer time) is a good way to ensure you have enough time to wait in the traffic, park, and walk to the designated area.

The Takbeer
What you'll hear people repeating from maghrib the night before, up until the gathering and time of prayer, is the following:
Allaahu Akbar Allaahu Akbar Allaahu Akbar (Allaah is greater x3)
Laa Ilaaha Ill-Allaah (There is no god except Allaah)
Allaahu Akbar Allaahu Akbar
Wa Li-llaahi-lHamd (And to Allaah is all praise)

Feel free to join in!

The Prayer
The Eid prayer is much like a regular two-rak'ah prayer like fajr, prayed in congregation, though the takbeer phrase "Allaahu Akbar" will be repeated in the prayer more times than usual. The imam will usually explain this before it starts--just follow what he and the congregation do. After the prayer will be a short sermon, which you should sit and listen through before greeting everyone around you.

The Festivities
Try to find out about Eid activities in your area--there might be Six Flags visits, fairs for children, parties, and other activities to celebrate on Eid and the following days. Have fun!

Ramadan Mubarak!

I appreciate your feedback as comments and by email. If you have additional tips or recommendations, can correct any mistakes, or would like to re-post the article, please do let me know! Anything good is from Allah. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to Keep Women Out of Your Da'wah Project

I feel connected to American Muslim Da'wah Projects, having found Islam and grown as a Muslim with the help of volunteers working for Islam here in the US. Through networks of da'ees spanning the country, and even the globe, I've seen countless people find and embrace Islam. And the diversity of people seeking information about Islam requires a diverse pool of volunteers who can connect with them.

Unfortunately, now and again a da'wah project, or a voice within one, might seek to promote homogeneity among volunteers. But a da'ee in the USA is likely to face both men and women from different races, countries, and cultural backgrounds, and I think that an organization that doesn't include diversity in its volunteers is going to have trouble reaching an American audience. Specifically, a volunteer base that doesn't include women won't be effective in reaching women.

A majority of converts to Islam are women, so it seems strange to me that anyone giving da'wah would try to impede the participation of women in the da'wah effort. And it seems outright hypocritical to suggest that it's not appropriate for a Muslim woman to engage in dialogue about Islam--if it's wrong for a Muslim woman to talk to men to give da'wah, then how is it okay for a Muslim man to talk to women for the same purpose? Clearly the best approach is for women to be available to speak to women, and for men to be available to speak to men. And given that Islam is frequently under attack regarding its treatment of women, isn't it much more powerful for women themselves to dispel the common myths fueling those attacks, rather than men whose attitudes may inadvertently confirm them?

With women embracing Islam at three times the rate of men or more, we need more women giving da'wah, not less, who can answer the questions and provide follow-up to women learning about Islam. But I've still seen women prevented from being effective in da'wah by policies and more frequently by other volunteers who oppose their participation.  Here's some signs it might be happening in an organization you're working with.

1. Women are not invited to participate. 
This could happen a number of ways--is the organization really only open to a select "boys' club" of friends and colleagues, without inviting the community to participate generally? Is advertising restricted among a male-only circle via email, or in a masjid? If only men are being contacted to participate as volunteers, or serve on the board, then the crucial input of the community's sisters is being neglected.

2. If women come to your meetings, they must sit in another room. With the door closed. 
Segregation can go too far. Picture a board meeting taking place in one of two adjoining rooms, where all the male board members sit except for one sister who is expected to sit in the other room with the door closed--she can neither see the other board members nor hear them well, and cannot be seen or heard herself. I'm sure that in a professional setting, these men wouldn't dare suggest that their female coworkers sit in another room, so why ask it of female board members? Separation prevents a few flow of ideas and places a barrier not just to seeing the opposite sex but from their contributions. Literally locking women out does not encourage them to participate or to voice their ideas; it devalues their opinions. And even if they try to participate, physical barriers prevent them from being heard and taken seriously by other members. This is not professional, and it's not the way an organization should conduct itself. Meetings should be open for fluid communication where everyone's voice can be heard equally.

3. The email list is used to express disapproval with women's participation in the organization.
Politics do not belong on mailing lists--it's unprofessional and immature--and the mailing list of an organization or a da'wah project should be treated with utmost professionalism. Are the members not representing Islam, after all? Using the mailing list as a means to voice one's opinion cheapens the discourse and turns people off. Using it to protest the contributions of women is not only offensive but can sabotage the productivity of the organization. Sending articles to promote segregation and marginalization of women in other countries, for example, only serves to isolate and attack women volunteers. The way men and women are separated in Saudi Arabia, for instance, might work fine for the Saudis but as a model won't translate well in the USA. Arguing about how the Saudis do it is neither relevant to the work of da'wah nor beneficial to an American da'wah project.

There are many da'wah projects tailored to American audiences, taking into account the different culture and attitude volunteers might face here in the USA rather than in Muslim countries they might have come from. Participation of women is one factor that American da'wah workers need to consider--if they want to keep women out, I'm sure they can. A bad attitude and behavior like I mentioned will keep many away--myself included. But what kind of da'wah is that, really?