Reflections on Iftaar

Instead of being able to welcome you into our home to share the best of the traditions we love, we’re sharing a series of reflections on what it looks like to host and experience some of our holiest observances in an intimate, multi-faith setting. For more information on the history and practice of our traditions, check out our Multi-Faith Holiday Guide

Artwork by Jannah Sellars

Ramadan is one of the primary religious practices in Islam. It is a month-long fast that provides time for deep spiritual reflection, prayer and connection to God. Muslims fast from dawn to sundown for the entire month, which invokes a unique rhythm, as the day to day routines change to reflect the spiritual significance of the time. We learned about the practice of fasting that is required for each day of this holy month and partook in iftaar, the meal of breaking the fast.

For the whole month, Ala’ fasted from dawn to sundown. She would get up at 3 am to prepare breakfast for the day.

She also changed her sleep schedule to accommodate staying up through the night engaging in prayer and reciting scripture. Ramadan usually involves communal nightly prayers at mosques, but since we can’t do that, there’s a lot of online community-building activities in which Ala’ has participated.

The Islamic calendar consists of 12 months of 29-30 days each, based on the cycle of the moon. Ramadan is the ninth month of the calendar. It is customary to begin the month of fasting by going out to sight the new moon to acknowledge the start of the holy month and witness the relationship between the physical and the spiritual world. In the spirit of this tradition, we embarked on a (socially distant) moon sighting to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan. About an hour before sunset, we all got in the car and drove through the Hollywood Hills to find the perfect place to watch the sunset and the moon set shortly afterward into the colorful sky of the recently set sun. 

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moonsighting in the Hollywood Hills

This was our first outing together since the stay at home order was put into place, and it felt liberating to traverse the mountains together on a clear evening with the city on display. We listened to children’s songs about welcoming Ramadan that Ala’ grew up listening to, while she shared her experiences of sighting the moon with different communities she’s lived in.

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Islam uses a lunar calendar based on the moon’s cycles. This means that the calendar shifts by 11 days each year, moving Ramadan with it. It takes 33 years for the calendar to rotate through the seasons. Muslims thus experience Ramadan is all the seasons over the course of 33 years. The length of someone’s daily fast changes based on the time of sunset and sunrise, which varies based on the time of year and the specific positioning on the Earth. This year, Ramadan began in the spring as we were all staying home to shelter in place.

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At the end of a day of fasting Muslims sit down to eat “iftaar” the meal of breaking the fast. Typically people come together and break their fasts in community each night.

Some of us have participated in iftaars before, however, for Jonathan this was his first time participating in an iftaar. We learned about how iftaar is celebrated differently in different communities – with some communities partaking in large social gatherings centered around large meals, although traditionally iftaar is a small, simple meal so that focus is placed on the internal devotional energy. 

Because this communal gathering is not possible right now, we gathered as a house to celebrate iftaar and learn more about this sacred time. We ate prophetic foods (foods eaten and recommended by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him) – dates, grapes, watermelon, and pomegranate-  and drank holy water from the Well of Zamzam. Ala’ decorated the table with lights and symbolic ornamentation to create an intentional and festival atmosphere. 

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Ala’ preparing the table for iftaar

The transition from day to night right before breaking the fast is considered an important time, so we dedicated some time before our meal to pray and reflect on what we’re thankful for. Ala’ shared a prayer for breaking the fast before we ate the peeled wheat soup and pastries she cooked. We finished dinner with special baklava desserts from Damascus gifted to us from a local grocery store. We wrapped the gathering by burning oud, which is a special form of incense that is typically used in spiritual gatherings.

As a house, we’ve shifted our mode of operation to accommodate the rhythm of Ramadan for the month. For example, we changed our weekly evening dinners to be after sunset so that we could all eat together. We also acknowledged that during the day Ala’ would be fasting and therefore have less energy to work on projects. By taking small steps to acknowledge Ala’’s fast, we have been able to cultivate a space for both learning and respect. Living together has provided us this incredible opportunity to understand faith from a lived experience. Celebrating holidays together and honoring everybody’s religious practice helps us build stronger relationships with each other and cultivate a multi-faith home. 

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