(No it’s not all about being hungry…)
So it’s that time of year again when I and many other Muslims face comments and questions along the lines of ‘You must lose lots of weight’, ‘I could never do that.’ ‘Gosh it must be so difficult.’ and the eternal classic ‘What not even any water?’ What is it that generates such curiosity every year? I am of course talking about Ramadan – the month during which followers of Islam (Muslims) fast. Now before I talk about ‘What Ramadan Means to Me’ I thought it would only be sensible to briefly(ish) cover what Ramadan is and what it’s about. But rather than focus on theology I wanted to touch more on the human aspect of it.
Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar and not something you do (yes, you sometimes hear people saying ‘Are you doing Ramadan this year?’). It is a spiritually significant month in the religion of Islam not only because of the fasting aspect of it but it is also the month during which the Angel Gabriel brought the first bit of revelation of the Qur’an from God to the Prophet Muhammed over 1,400 years ago. Ramadan typically lasts for 29 or 30 days during which time Muslims will fast from dawn until sunset (basically the daylight hours) – abstaining from consuming any food or drink and even marital relations. Only adults and those considered mature enough are expected to fast – children don’t have to fast. Other exemptions can include those who are ill or have other long term health problems or pregnant or breastfeeding.
A typical day during Ramadan will consist of waking up early to have a pre-dawn meal (technically an early breakfast) called ‘Suhoor’ and of course drinking plenty of water before starting the fast. Then it’s no food or water until sunset when the fast is broken by eating and drinking again – this sunset meal is called ‘Iftar’ and traditionally many Muslims will break the fast with dates and water.
In Islam as Muslims follow the lunar calendar, the Islamic calendar months and festivals shift by about 10 to 11 days every year relative to the Gregorian calendar. The start of a lunar calendar month is determined by the sighting of the new moon. So Ramadan takes place during different seasons and times of the year. So in the winter months in the UK for example a typical fast may be approximately around 10 hours compared to the summer months when the fast may be around 17 hours (it’s not as bad as it sounds…). In countries nearer the equator, the length of the fast tends to be more even throughout the seasons.
As mentioned earlier Ramadan is a spiritually significant month in the Islamic Calendar. In this regard for many Muslims Ramadan is a time for self-reflection, self-development and strengthening of one’s connection with God through increasing one’s God consciousness. This is in part done by more prayer, studying of the Qur’an and doing more good deeds in general. Doing good can include being socially more proactive and benefitting those around you and society in general. It could also include feeding of the poor and needy, giving in charity, donating your time. It can even be changing yourself for the better.
Often people focus on the physical aspects of the fast (of which there are numerous physiological benefits) in terms of deprivation of food and water. But fasting is a holistic experience which brings both physical and spiritual benefits. During Ramadan you’re not just fasting with your stomach but also with your senses so you take extra care about what you look at, listen to and say. In Islamic theology how we use these senses is considered to have a direct impact on our hearts and spiritual selves. In short you spend the month shedding yourself of bad habits you may have picked up throughout the year and developing yourself into a much better person by the end of Ramadan. Another way you could look at it is that you are in essence doing a soft reboot of yourself and coming out with a better ‘you’ at the end of it, a ‘version 2.0’ if you will. Along the way you also recalibrate your moral compass too.
Fasting also helps to develop a very deep sense of empathy towards the poor and needy. After a long day of fasting I can assure you that the water you drink takes on a whole other level of appreciation. At the risk of sounding like Nigella Lawson during one of her cooking programmes – at the time of breaking your fast and drinking water you feel every trickle of water as it hits your lips and then journeys down your throat quenching your thirst. That feeling of the first sip of water after fasting is something you look forward to every day during Ramadan. Water is the source of life for a reason and those first few gulps of water start to reenergise your body in the same way rain brings the desert back to life.
And this is where that empathy towards the poor and needy is developed. As someone living in a first world country I know during the day that at some point I will get to have some water to drink when I break my fast. But there are sadly those around the world who are perpetually fasting because of poverty.
After a long day of fasting when I go to get my glass of water to drink, I feel fortunate that I have clean, cool running water flowing from the tap. The realisation that hits you is that there are people in the world who don’t have the same access to clean water. In fact some will travel miles to collect water to drink of such poor quality that many of us would politely refuse to drink if offered to us or wouldn’t even consider washing ourselves with such water. But this is the sad reality for many in the world that they are forced by necessity to drink such water and fasting during Ramadan brings this home.
When you realise how blessed you are to have this clean water it really reinvigorates your desire to help those who are not so fortunate. It is not surprising then that with this development of empathy that a few years ago the Charity Commission said that on average British Muslims donate around £100 Million Pounds in charity just during the month of Ramadan.
There is also a strong social and community aspect to Ramadan. During Ramadan at the time of breaking the fast the Muslim community here in the UK and around the world will be abuzz with activity with people preparing meals and eagerly awaiting for the sound of the call to prayer for the sunset prayer indicating it is now time to break the fast and pray. In many Muslim countries streets that were relatively quiet during the day will suddenly come to life at sunset with cafes and eating places full of people counting down to the breaking of the fast. The air will also be heavy with the smell of all the food being cooked or already prepared for people to break their fast with. Mosques around the world including here in the UK also become an epicentre of energy with worshippers attending to break the fast together and pray the sunset prayer.
Most British Muslims will break the fast at home or with families or invite friends and relatives to break the fast with them. Others will go to their local Mosque to break the fast there with others from the community. Just like Mosques overseas they also becoming a hive of activity at sunset. Worshippers will bring food to the Mosque to share with others or some will donate food for those in the Mosque to break their fast. But just as in Muslim countries the worshippers will sit there patiently in eager anticipation of the call to prayer indicating it is time to break the fast.
One aspect I forgot to touch upon is that your body does actually adapt to the fast after a few days. Many think going without food and water during Ramadan is torturous but as humans we are designed to go for long periods without food especially when our ancestors used to have to go out looking for their food – not like nowadays when the only foraging for food that takes place for some is their fingers tapping on their smartphone screens on some takeaway app.
There is of course a few days of adjustment when your body adapts to your new situation. So for those with colleagues who are fasting during these first few days you can sometimes expect to see some signs of coffee withdrawal, possibly a little bit of crankiness for those who may hit low blood sugar by the end of the work day and some sleep deprivation (you have to get up before dawn to eat to start the fast).
Eventually of course all things come to an end. As weird as it may sound as Ramadan approaches its end and as much as you look forward to going back to a normal routine you also don’t want Ramadan to end. Once you are in full on fasting or Ramadan mode and benefitting from the positive changes in you as a person plus the increased spirituality you almost don’t want Ramadan to come to a close. It’s akin to seeing an old friend after a long time who always brings out the best in you, catching up and bonding with them again and then feeling sad at having to say goodbye to them knowing you won’t see them again for a year.
But in the sad departure of Ramadan there is also then the good news of celebrating the end of Ramadan with the festival of Eid al Fitr. Eid being a time of celebration with family and friends, lots of nice food of course but still not forgetting and carrying forward the lessons we have learnt from Ramadan.
Finally as to what Ramadan means for me it is a time to reflect. Also to remember those less fortunate. A time to remember my social responsibility to those not only less well off in society but those unable to help themselves. To try to better the lives of others if only in a small way. To try to make our city a better place to live in. Again if only in small way. Even if I can only make a micro change and we all collectively make micro changes eventually they add up to macro changes that makes things better for everyone. As I like to remind myself and sometimes volunteers I work with – it’s not the size of the steps we take that matters but that we are all taking the right steps together in the right direction. In short in an age where we are distracted by the digital world and don’t often have time to think about ourselves let alone others, Ramadan for me is a time to slow down and also reconnect with my own humanity.