Ramadan: A Feast for the Spirit

Ramadan: A Feast for the Spirit
Yassa Chicken, a Senegalese dish

or the past month, billions of Muslims worlwide, and thousands of Muslims in Madison alone, have been fasting from sunrise to sunset in honor of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Today, with the arrival of the new moon, they will break their fast for the final time this year.

Abstaining from food or drink is no easy feat. In 2001 I was living in Mali, a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa, during Ramadan. Even though I was surrounded by people fasting, I couldn’t muster the willpower nor the desire to join them. I did, however, enjoy the community spirit of breaking the fast. Heading home on a small bus one day from downtown Bamako to an outlying neighborhood, the sun set. Everyone around me pulled out whatever they had—water, ginger juice, oranges, dates— and passed them around the bus as the mosques sounded their call to prayer. Though people knew that I wasn’t Muslim, they freely shared their food and drink with me. I felt an incredible sense of love, knowing I was being cared for and honored simply as a fellow human.

Edriss Drammeh—a friend, Madisonian and Gambian Muslim—hasn’t missed a day of fasting since he was sixteen years old. I spoke with Edriss one afternoon last week, right in the middle of a day of fasting. Though his voice was a little rough from lack of water (sorry, Edriss!), he patiently and passionately answered my questions about Ramadan.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan begins on the ninth month of the lunar calendar each year and marks the time when the Koran, the Muslim holy book, was revealed to Prophet Mohammed. But the main point of the fast is more than recognizing the existence of a holy book—it is about humility, spirituality and humanity. 

I always thought of fasting as a cleanse, where you only drink water. What is the significance of not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset?

Ramadan is month of spiritual reflection. One of the most important points is to reflect on people who do not have food. Fasting teaches us to have empathy for people who cannot afford food or are poor. Fasting every day for a month, you will experience their pain, their hunger and thirst. Hunger is a visible part of every community in West Africa. Even in the cities, where food is more abundant, it is likely that your neighbors do not have enough nutritious food. No food is thrown away; there is always someone who will eat it. 

Aside from feeling empathy, why abstain from eating and drinking all day?

Not only does fasting give you empathy for those who are truly hungry, but reflecting on that hunger motivates you to help those who have less. People who are able to afford to fast and have plenty of food can give food to people who have less or donate to charity. It’s a time to practice self-control and self-restraint. Muslims fast because they believe that God wants this; there is an obedience to God. We also use this time to contemplate our beliefs; we take a break from the pleasures and luxuries in life. 

It must be challenging to fast in our culture, not to mention during the hottest time of year.

It is very hard. I still have to work full time. I have to fast in my mind, because the spirit of fasting is not in this culture, it is not around me. I am only abstaining from eating and drinking. I have to remind myself of the greater purpose. I always try to eat with someone; usually I eat with my wife Greta if she is home. Otherwise I go to my aunt’s house to eat together with my family. Fasting is about community and family.

How is it being married to someone who does not fast?

My wife Greta supports me by cooking food most nights and by eating with me, but it is challenging. It’s hard to strike a balance. She tries not to eat around me during the day, but sometimes she has to. I do not have energy to do things that we normally enjoy, and since Ramadan is about self-restraint and denial of pleasure, well, there are other things that we cannot do during that month, such as going out, or having sex, especially during the day.

Are there Muslims who don’t fast?

Even Islam allows people with certain conditions not to fast; if you are old, young, pregnant, nursing, sick or too poor and already hungry, you do not have to fast. But there are things you can do instead to support those in need. You can buy food for those less fortunate or make a meal for a family.

I can only imagine that if I ever made it through a day of fasting, I would sit down and pig out come sunset. Is there a certain way you break your fast?

Breaking the fast during Ramadan is much more symbolic. First, after prayer, you start with a date or piece of fruit, then water or tea, before moving on to the meal. It’s a big meal. Though the advice of the prophet is to only fill your stomach two-thirds full, no one really follows that. We eat food that is highly valued during Ramadan, such as beef and lamb. After a long day of not eating, you crave good food, your favorite dishes. We basically cook three separate meals and eat them all at once.

[Edriss’ wife Greta told me recently that when he’s breaking his fast, she just sits back and lets him eat. “It’s kind of scary,” she said. “I made him a hamburger one night and put it on his plate. Before he even started, he served himself another burger.”]

You must be looking forward to Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month. How will you celebrate?

All Muslims in Madison come to one venue to pray. There are three mosques in Madison, but on Eid everyone will come together—Africans, Arabs, Asians, white and African Americans, and a lot of Gambians! We will pray together and cook a lot of food. And eat.

RECIPE: Chicken Yassa 


Chicken pieces of your choice (4 breasts equivalent)
Marinade (see recipe below)
2 large onions, chopped
2 carrots
1/2 lemon
2 whole habaneros
1 cup chicken stock
Salt to taste


1 large bunch flat-leafed parsley
4 large cloves garlic
1 tbsp black pepper corns
1 small white onion
4 tbsp yellow mustard
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1/4 cup veggie oil

Mash parsley, onion, garlic and pepper corns in mortar or food processor. Stir in remaining ingredients. Coat chicken pieces and refrigerate at least 2 hours.


– For skinless chicken: Remove from marinade (keep marinade for sauce) and grill just to brown each side. Do not cook through. Cool and dice.
– For skin-on chicken: The Malians fry the pieces to seal in juices. You could pan fry or deep fry just to seal juices then set aside.

Heat about 1/4 cup oil in large pot. Stir in chopped onions until soft. Add in browned chicken pieces and carrots, marinade, juice of 1/2 lemon, stock or water to cover,whole peppers and salt/bullion cubes. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes or until tender. Add salt to taste.

Serves 4.

Serve over rice, with a baguette and a cup of mint tea.

Photo by Otehlia Cassidy.