During Ramadan, What's the Most Important Meal?

Breakfast is “the most important meal of the day.” Or so the American adage says. During the month of Ramadan in Muslim culture, breakfast becomes even more important and takes on a whole new meaning as a meal.

Ramadan marks the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and an annual holy occasion. Those who observe it—as mandated by the religion’s sacred book, the Koran—must fast from eating and drinking from dawn until dusk. Even water is not allowed.

The annual event begins with tarawih, a communal prayer session traditionally held in a mosque, the Muslim place of worship. Each day, followers of Ramadan resolvedly abstain from food and drink, and each night, they break the fast.

Iftar represents the Arabic word for “breakfast,” specifically during Ramadan. Most often, breakfast signifies first meal served after the sun rises, to break the (short) fast of sleep. During Ramadan, however, Muslims serve breakfast only after the sun sets, to the fast of an entire day. As well as in homes, this evening meal is additionally hosted in mosques; community members congregate to dine and pray together.

Specifically what food an iftar consists of varies by the culture. As one of the world’s major religions, Islam is globally practiced by millions of people, and Ramadan is observed just about everywhere, from Afghanistan to Algeria to America. Still, what almost all iftars serve dates, which trace back to the way the Prophet Muhammad broke his own fast.

Ramadan seems, on the surface, to only test a person’s bodily limits. In reality, though, the month is as much spiritual as it physical. Once observers cast aside corporeal needs, they are invited to look inward—examine who they are as individuals, re-explore their relationship to God, their family and friends, refocus on a pure lifestyle, participate in charitable activities, and do away with bad deeds. The month does not only signify a detoxification of the body, but of the soul, as well.

In the same way that Lent asks Christians to abstain from a choice life luxury for the 40 days leading up to Easter and Yom Kippur asks Jews to fast for the Day of Atonement, Ramadan asks Mulims to fast every day for a month—not so much to lose something, like food, as to gain a new perspective.

This year, Ramadan began on July 20. Because it begins roughly 11 days earlier each year, it evolves by season, in addition to year, time period and location. For the first time in 32 years, Ramadan is currently intersecting with the Summer Olympic Games. An estimated 3,000 athletes and officials participating in the international event are Muslim, and the dietary restrictions of Ramadan are clearly very different than those usually expected of an Olympic athlete. Sports 101 says to “always stay hydrated,” but during daylight hours on Ramadan, absolutely no fluids are allowed—water, Gatorade, or otherwise.

So, what are the athletes to do? The Koran indicates that those who are “sick or on a journey” may fast for “a number of other days.” Subsequently, many athletes have opted to forgo fasting during the games. Others, though, are choosing to still follow the religious regiment.

This Ramadan has been noted as especially challenging for its timing, since in the summer, the days are longer—and hotter. The Olympic athletes observing, then, are particularly inspiring. As they persevere in spite of hunger, heat, and thirst, perhaps everyone following the games should reconsider whether it’s coffee that wakes us up in the morning or the way we get out of bed. Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Or is iftar the most important meal of the night?