Ramadhan: A time for fasting, then feasting

It is common for people to eat the evening meal in large groups. PHOTO/FILE

Today marks the beginning of Ramadhan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. Muslims all over the world observe this month by fasting and eating according to the laid-down custom.

We will dedicate the next four issues to various rituals, dishes, and recipes gathered from different communities in Kenya.

Understanding Ramadhan

Many non-Muslims only know that Ramadhan is the month when Muslims fast. However, in addition to fasting during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims abstain from other physical needs.

As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practise self-sacrifice, Ramadhan is much more than just not eating and drinking.

Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives, in accordance with Islamic teaching. They are to make peace with those who have wronged them, strengthen ties with family and friends, and do away with bad habits.

The Arabic word for “fasting” (saum) literally means “to refrain”.

During Ramadhan, every part of the body must be restrained, so fasting is not merely physical, but rather, the total commitment of the body and soul to the spirit of the fast.

Fasting and feasting

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a means of learning self-control, and by keeping the need to satisfy bodily appetites at bay, it is believed that this brings one closer to God.

When hungry and thirsty, those who are fasting better understand the suffering of the poor.

During Ramadan, all Muslims are required to fast, with the exception of the old or sick, travellers on long journeys, women in late pregnancy or menstruating, and young children. Those who are only temporarily unable to fast make it up later.


Families wake up early for suhoor, a meal eaten before sunrise. Suhoor typically tends to be heavy and is highly regarded by Islamic traditions to benefit from blessings and serves to avoid crankiness or weakness caused by the fast.

At the end of the day, the fast is traditionally broken with dates and water. After evening prayers, dinner (iftar) is served. The tradition of beginning the iftar with dates and water goes back to the earliest days of Islam.

Once this traditional fast-breaking is complete, people can eat any number of foods, with many regions having their own traditional iftar foods, including a wide assortment of dessert treats.

It is common for people to eat iftar in large groups, making the fast-breaking a community party. Muslims often try to include charity in their iftar by feeding needy members of the community as they celebrate the end of the day’s fast.


After iftar, Muslim communities often come alive with socialising. People may simply stroll around the neighbourhood to chat with friends or go to the market, attend performances, and meet up with friends at coffee houses and other locations.

It is worth noting that during Ramadhan, Muslims extend hospitality and kindness to friends, relative, and neighbours, especially those who might not be able to prepare food during this month.

Having grown up at the coast, I remember vividly the tasty, colourful spreads during iftar when I was invited by Muslim friends to join them.
However, my most momentous memory of iftar was as a guest of friends in Cairo as they broke the fast along the Nile on board a felucca.

Calling on all Muslim readers

For the next three weeks, we would like to feature recipes, rituals, and traditions of Ramadhan. Please send in recipes of your favourite meals during this period. The more traditional the recipes, the better. (Please ensure that you include exact measurements and timings.)

We would also appreciate a few inside stories on the traditions observed in households to give our readers an idea and appreciation of the holy month.

Next week: Ramadhan delicacies with an Ismaili twist.