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The Accidental Theist

Ramadan 101: Lessons in Islam

A conversation with scholar-educator Dr. Hussein Rashid
Eid al-Fitr meal in Malaysia
Published on August 11, 2010

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August 11th marks the beginning of the Islamic month of Ramadan, a month of fasting and reflection for Muslims all over the world, including those living here in the United States. Like Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Islam uses a lunar calendar which makes Islamic holidays appear to float on the Gregorian calendar.

Through my work at Project Interfaith, I find that many people have heard of Ramadan but few know much about it or how this month and the customs associated with it, such as fasting from sunrise to sunset, connect to the broader beliefs and practices of Islam. So, I asked Dr. Hussein Rashid, scholar, educator, and himself a practicing Muslim, to share a bit more about this important time for Muslims and about his experiences in interfaith work.

What is Ramadan and why is it so important to Muslims? Why do Muslims fast during this time?

Ramadan is the month of fasting. Muslims fast for a variety of reasons, perhaps most importantly because God commanded it in the Qur’an [Islam’s revered scripture]. Muslims may see it as time to renew their faith, to cleanse themselves of the errors of the previous year, to remind themselves of the suffering of others, or to use the physical fast to commit to "fast" from bad thoughts, speech, and actions during the rest of the year. Ultimately, it’s about strengthening one’s relationship with God.

What is Eid al-Fitr and what are some ways Muslims may celebrate it?

Eid al-Fitr, or the Feast of Fast-breaking, is the holiday that comes at the end of the month of Ramadan. It’s about eating, being with family and friends, and being thankful for all that we do have at our disposal.

Can you tell us about some of your favorite customs or memories associated with Ramadan and/or Eid?

I think, without fail, my favorite part of Ramadan is Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power. This is the night Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed, and you spend the entire night in prayer. The chanting of God’s name that I participate in is one of the most powerful experiences I have ever felt. The night falls during the last 10 days of the month, so you haven’t eaten in three weeks and you are up all night reciting the name of God. The Gates of Heaven do feel like they open that night.

You do a lot of work in communities and online to educate people about Islam and Muslims, including teaching at Park Avenue Christian Church and contributing to multiple blogs. What is one of the most prevalent myths or stereotypes that you run into about Islam or Muslims in your work?

Muslims are people. For every Osama bin Laden, there are literally a quarter of a billion doctors doing what doctors do: save lives, heal people, care for the needy. They are part of the nameless, faceless mass that makes our communities function. We are not the monster under the bed; we are scared of those monsters too.

Dr. Hussein Rashid: photo by Ali AnsaryDr. Hussein Rashid: photo by Ali Ansary

Your Twitter name is @islamoyankee, which I love. Why did you decide to go by that moniker?

I read an article that said the two things the French hate are Muslims and Americans, or the islamoyankee. I took it as a way to short hand my identity as a native son of New York and a proud Muslim. It’s also an important part of my entire online identity. I don’t hide behind it, but I’m of a digital generation that signed video games with pseudonyms, like "Wiz." These kids nowadays don’t know what we old-timers used to live like.

What are two or three of the best websites and resources on Islam and Muslim communities that you would suggest someone to check out if this conversation has made them more curious?

I would suggest the "Majlis" list on [the website] "islamicate." It’s on the right-hand side near the top. Hopefully, for those of you who are looking to learn more about Ramadan, this post is a helpful jumping off point.

For those of you reading who are Muslim, I’d love to hear about what your favorite customs or memories are associated with Ramadan and/or Eid—please post your comments below. For those of you in Omaha, you can learn more about and connect with members of the local Muslim community through the Islamic Center of Omaha’s website.

bethkatzBeth Katz is founder and executive director of Project Interfaith and a self-professed interfaith junkie. You can reach her at, find her on Facebook or follower her Twitter: @bethkatz.