It’s that time of the year again. The time that everyone anticipates. The time that everyone knows they should prepare for, but usually don’t. The time that, when it’s over, they promise to do better next year, but they usually don’t. Yes, it’s Ramadan, and it’s approaching fast.

Ramadan means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it’s about staying up all night to enjoy the vibrant nighttime atmosphere of the masjid, and then go out with friends. For others, it’s all about home cooking: savoring the best meals that are ever cooked throughout the year. Then, when Eid comes, it’s about dressing up as fancy as possible and hugging people you haven’t seen since last year, or perhaps even those you don’t ever recall seeing before.

Those are the positive memories of Ramadan that many Muslims experience. Then there are some negative memories such as standing in the heat on a long day while fasting. Having to watch the cooking channel an hour before fasting ends just to quench the desire for food.

Whatever the memories that are conjured up, it is time for most Muslims to refocus. It is time to rethink what Ramadan means and how we experience it. Every individual has the ability to shape the way they will experience Ramadan this year. So before we start with some tips, the first question that must be asked is: what is the purpose of Ramadan in the first place? By answering this question correctly, only then can we shed some light on how current Ramadan practices measure up with fulfilling that purpose.

Ramadan was the month in which the Qur’an was sent down. The revelation came piecemeal over a period of 23 years, but began in the month of Ramadan. So by celebrating Ramadan, we are actually celebrating the Qur’an. This means that we are actually happy that Allah, our Creator and the Lord of the Universe, chose to communicate with us and teach us how to live our lives. When viewed from this angle, a true believer celebrates the revelation from Allah by following that guidance and fasting every day of the month.

That much is understood, but what is the purpose behind fasting, you might ask? Some people erroneously equate some benefits from fasting with the purpose behind fasting. “To feel like the poor people in the world.” “It cleans out the junk from the body and is a very healthy practice.” These, and other answers, are benefits of fasting, but not the purpose. Allah specifically mentions the real purpose of fasting in Ramadan [Qur’an 2:183]: “Believers, fasting has been prescribed for you…so that you might become conscious [taqwaa] of Allah.” So the goal is to become conscious and mindful of Allah and the teachings which He has prescribed in the Qur’an.

How does fasting accomplish that? Simply put: when you fast, you avoid things which are intrinsically lawful [halaal] for you. Water, bread, fruits, pizza, etc. are all lawful [halaal] for a Muslim to consume. However, during the days of Ramadan, they become prohibited [haraam]. The reasoning is simple: by learning the discipline needed to refrain from things which were essentially lawful for you, you learn to stay away from those things which are prohibited for you as well. For example, someone who craves pork at some point in their life might stop and think, “Why am I unable to resist this temptation when I was able to avoid all forms of meat when I was fasting? In fact, I even went without water!” It is hoped that if the person learned to control themself from one type of desire, they would be able to control another desire of lesser intensity, since refraining from all food, drink, and intimacy is more difficult that only avoiding certain types.

So Ramadan is an opportunity to become conscious of Allah, which is essentially a life changing experience. Most people live their lives only conscious about themselves and what their ego [nafs] desires. The month of the Qur’an is a chance from Allah to change, and He promises that he will help you in that month. Imagine Ramadan being like a 30 day pass to the best gym in the world given to a person who is really out-of-shape. This is an opportunity to get in spiritual shape, but you have to work for it.

Once the month is over, the super-celebration begins: Eid al-Fitr. Many people usually spend so much time preparing for Eid that they end up losing a lot of time they could have utilized during Ramadan. That’s why it is a good idea to get your Eid shopping done and plans made before Ramadan actually comes in.

Another common mistake people make is either to not make Eid a very big deal or to only celebrate it the way they enjoy it. This causes a problem in many families where there is a cultural disconnect between children and their parents. Many young Muslims complain that Eid is a boring day where their parents drag them around from this house to that, without actually getting to have any fun. Eid is supposed to be a day that everyone enjoys.

Young Muslims growing up in the West experience other holidays such as Halloween, Christmas, and Easter being celebrated around them. If the festivities and gifts on Eid are severely lacking then Eid ends up not being a very fun holiday in comparison to these other pagan rituals. The solution: Muslim parents must strive to make Eid the best holiday for their children and make sure they have lots of fun. That doesn’t mean you have to promote materialism and try to buy the most expensive gifts. It just means that it should be an enjoyable time.

The importance of rethinking how we celebrate Ramadan and Eid cannot be underestimated. As long as our religious practices are perceived as cultural practices in the eyes of Muslims, then Islam will become just that: no more than a culture that someone holds on to without actually being convinced about its truth. However, if we are able to reshape our Islamic practice and place it in line with its true purpose, then our religion will act as a filter to magnify the beautiful aspects of our various cultures and discard the ugly and harmful innovations.

Shaykh Mustafa Umar