By Fatima Patel
Around 22 per cent (1.6 billion) of the world population is Muslim and the vast majority of them have just passed the half way mark of the holiest month of the Muslim calendar – Ramadan.
With just over 3 million Muslims in the UK many of them have been participating in the longest fasts the UK has seen in 30 years. Muslims have been fasting from sunrise to sunset, for approximately 19 hours, with no food or water.
As a Muslim I too have been observing the fasts by avoiding food and drink from dawn till dusk, but for me and many observing Muslims there’s more to Ramadan than just fasting. In Ramadan it is of particular importance not to lie, cheat, or slander someone. You can’t lust after things, and you should avoid bad language and avoid getting into fights. In Islam these things shouldn’t be done anyway, but to do them in Ramadan is seen as being particularly bad.
The idea is to try and encourage self-discipline so that you get in to routine and keep practising the rest of the year. Many see Ramadan as the spiritual detox month to better themselves and to be more appreciative of what they have.
As we are now past the half way mark of Ramadan, many of my Non-Muslims friends still feel they don’t know why someone like me (who has just recovered from an illness) will go through almost 19 hours of no food and drink for 30 days.
You’re ‘silly’ one of my good friends said to me, (in the nicest way, out of concern for my welfare) and this got me thinking. Fasts have never killed me or anyone else that I know. They are difficult but I out myself through the challenge every year. Often I just take this as a standard as all my family and Muslim friends do it, so I’ve never felt the need to explain.
However, the comment from my friend made me realise, how much of a diverse group of friends I have and I often just take things for granted. I made the assumption that ‘all’ my friends and work colleagues will simply know about me and my faith. The comment about being silly, however, made me realise that perhaps I haven’t really explained Ramadan properly to my non-Muslim friends and work colleagues and just expect them to know, because I know them. So in an attempt to help with the understanding of why Ramadan is so important to me three million British Muslims like me I have put together a guide for non-Muslims.
So for those who want to know more, here is my non-Muslim guide to help you understand your Muslim friend, neighbour or work colleague during the month of Ramadan.
Confusion about when Ramadan begins
The Islamic calendar is lunar and therefore, the dates for Ramadan will change based on the new moon. How we determine when Ramadan begins is on traditional method where you have to physically see the moon (even though there are apps for that). That’s why, if your one friend says they started their first fast yesterday, whilst one started today, just respect their viewpoints and if you’re their boss try and be flexible with time off.
Eating in front of us
While the fasts in the UK this year are close to 19 hours they are difficult, but for many of us who are fasting, it’s business as usual. Most of us won’t mind you eating in front of us. So long as you don’t make it a massive feast.
No water at all?
Yes, we are not able to have even a drop of water until the fast opens. But don’t worry this doesn’t kill us, it just makes us appreciate that first sip of water when it’s time to open your fast so much more.
Your silly for fasting when you’re not well.
Well yes, even Islam forbids you to not fast if you’re not well. People, who are sick, pregnant or weak and cannot survive the long fasts, do not have to fast. Islam says you should look after yourself and not put your body through unnecessary hardships, so there are guidelines which tell Muslims not to fast if they are unable to. Any missed fasts this Ramadan can be made up by fasting in the winter months, when daylight is much smaller and fasts are therefore smaller. If you are still unable to fast, then there is a further option to give money to charity instead.
I fast, because I enjoy the fasts, although some days can be tough, but I am fairly safe and best of all is the feeling when that first morsel of food enters your mouth during Iftar (breaking of fast) time. The feeling is surreal.
Can I join you for your Iftar, even if I haven’t fasted?
Of course you can and of course you don’t have to fast. Iftar (the breaking of your fast) is a beautiful moment and many of us like to make it into a communal meal. You will find many Muslim households will have open invites for friends and neighbours to come round for Iftar.
In fact, in my neighbourhood, if people don’t go round for Iftar, they deliver food to your home.
My advice is to definitely experience an Iftar even if it’s once in your lifetime. The moment when you have your first glass of water or food after going hungry for nearly 19 hours, is an amazing feeling and to share that with someone who has been fasting all day, is also an amazing feeling.
“Ramadan Mubarak” greeting
Just like Muslims will greet during Christmas and wish those celebrating Happy Christmas, there’s nothing wrong in saying Happy Ramadan, although the preferred greeting is Ramadan Mubarak or Ramadan Kareem which means have a blessed or generous Ramadan
So Ramadan is mainly about not eating or drinking right?
Although that’s a big part of Ramadan it isn’t just about abstaining from eating and drinking.
It’s related to spiritual renewal. Most Muslims tend to be more spiritual during Ramadan, not to say some aren’t during other months. However, in Ramadan most Muslims express their dedication to their faith through abstinence, and relate to those suffering from famine around the world. The hunger allows you to be more grateful and therefore, where you would normally get distracted in the over-indulgence of normal life, whilst in state of hunger and thirst you are constantly aware of why you are fasting and therefore, feel closer to your creator and thus are more involved in prayer, visiting the mosque and being charitable
Sleepy eyes and tiredness
Naturally when you are going without food and water tiredness will kick in, but you will find most Muslims are tired due to lack of sleep. And no, that’s not because they are up all night chatting on social media (although some might), it’s due to the taraweeh prayers and being awake for Sehri.
In Ramadan Muslims enter into a period of discipline and worship so whilst they are fasting during the day, they will also perform their daily 5 prayers. In addition, and only in Ramadan special evening prayers are conducted where long portions of the Qur’an are recited. These special prayers are known as taraweeh.
The word taraweeh comes from an Arabic word which means to rest and relax. The prayer can be very long (well over an hour), during which one stands upright to read from the Qur’an and performs many cycles of movement (standing, bowing, prostrating, sitting). After each four cycles, one sits for a brief period of rest before continuing, this is where the name taraweeh (“rest prayer”) comes from.
Most Muslims will go to the mosque to perform taraweeh prayer. After the taraweeh prayer is finished, Muslims will then prepare for Sehri, before catching a nap and then up for work. So if you’re their boss or friend or colleague, do try to be understanding as they may be very tired, but can also be a little cranky.
What is Sehri?
Sehri is also referred to as Suhoor and is the Islamic term referring to the meal consumed early in the morning by Muslims before fasting. Most people will have their pre-dawn meal at around 1.30am and then abstain from food by closing their fast at around 2.00am. This is then followed by morning prayer called Fajar.
Why do you open your fast with dates?
Traditionally, dates are known as the food prophet Muhammad ate when he broke from his fast.
During the period of Ramadan, when fasting lasts from sunrise to sunset, the body can develop mild health problems such as headaches, low blood sugar, and lethargy.
To avoid such problems, one should carefully monitor their eating habits once fasting for the day has ended. Dates are an excellent source of fibre, sugar, magnesium, potassium, and have carbohydrates which will aid the body in maintaining health. The carbohydrates found in dates also make the fruit a slower digesting food, much better than fried or fatty foods which digest fast and leave one hungry for more!
Hence why with all these benefits, most Muslims choose to open their fast with dates.
So there you have it, Ramadan Mubarak to all!