by Yasin Bangee
Ramadan begins soon and millions of Muslims in the UK and Worldwide will join together and follow, in essence, the same routine for 29/30 days. The month will begin in the next few days and will culminate with Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations.
The dates vary with different cultures that follow Islam but in general the procedure is the same. No eating/drinking during day light hours. But Ramadan is much more than the restraint of not having food/water. Ramadan and fasting have almost become synonymous but the month has a lot to do with reflection, spirituality and in my case, community.
1) Ramadan is not a festival; it’s a month within the Islamic calendar sitting where September would normally lie. As Islam follows the lunar calendar the months shift each year, coming slightly earlier by almost 2 weeks. When I was 9 I started fasting for the first time. My friends, parents, elder relatives were fasting and I wanted in on the action. And it was in January! The easiest fasts you could imagine. Sunrise would be around 7am, and sunset around 4.30pm. No bother at all. From the age of 11 onwards I kept full fasts and I haven’t looked back since.
2) Over the next 10 years or so Ramadan will be somewhat difficult, long summer days to endure without sustenance. The fasting hours are expected to be 3.30am to 9.30pm. That leaves a period of 6 hours or so to recharge and refuel for another day. When Ramadan re-enters April/March the fasts will become slightly easier, and the cycle starts again once more.
3) The physical act of fasting gets a lot of focus. In this age of consumption the wilful denial of food/water shocks people at first. A lot reply with “surely you can drink water?” but nope. No water, no food, no fruit, no smoking. Exceptions exist for those who need to take medicine and as I’ll explain later Ramadan is more than the simple fasting element but as religious events go, the physical act of fasting is quite extreme.
For a month the usual day to day routine breaks down. When I wake up I can’t have toast/cereal or even a glass of water. At work I usually have 4 cups of tea through the day but no more. After returning home from work I usually have a snack pre-meal but again, that’s denied to me.
From waking up to breaking my fast about 14 hours will pass without anything entering my stomach and that’s a pretty long time. If you consider the time spent sleeping, about 20 hours in total could go.
At sunset I will go to the local mosque and break my fast with friends, having a glass of water and a handful of dates. After returning home I will eat a bit, rest, eat a bit more, rest and finally about midnight try to take in as much water as possible. Contrary to what people usually think, the post fasting meal is not a feast. It’s impossible to eat a lot so quickly after a prolonged period of not eating.
4) Post fasting should not be spent thinking “ah I can eat!” rather than “hey, I’m lucky that unlike many millions, I have the option and privilege to eat”.
I head to bed at 12am and avoid waking up for Sehri (the period where fasting begins) as my sleep routine means I enjoy uninterrupted sleep better than waking up, eating, going to bed and waking up again at 7am.
For me, fasting lasts from 12am to 9-10pm.
5) So what does fasting give me in return? A chance to reflect. I know I can’t eat food or drink water so why think about it? I know food/water will come later so rather than dwell I can focus on myself, work, prayer, spirituality and reflection. This Ramadan will be sad for my family as it’s the first since my Grandma passed on.
It also provides a stark look at what I spend my actual day doing. A lot of my day, I find, is spent watching TV, listening to music and having snacks or food. When fasting all those options are closed to me. I try to avoid TV/Music throughout the 30 days, regardless of the time of day. An exception is made for football but as Ramadan falls in pre-season I highly doubt my TV will be switched on for the full month.
Rather than thinking of what fasting takes away, I look at the benefits I receive.
6) Fasting, as explained, is much more than the extreme denial of food/water. The month away from work will be spent, as much as possible, in prayer, reading about Islamic history and with family/friends. It’s not a punishment, it’s more a chance to recharge and remember that ultimately, as Muslims, our life and Islam are interlinked.
People approach Ramadan in different ways and no way is right and no way is wrong. Contrary to what the media may say, Muslims are not a homogenous group and people mirror culture when following religious practices.
7) Iftaar (when the fasting day ends and food can be consumed) will usually take place with the family or at mosque with other members of the community. Dates and water (or Zam-Zam water) will be provided by the mosque to any and all visitors. The act of breaking fast together confirms in my eyes that under Islam we are, for better or worst, considered equal. Consumerism and Capitalism sadly proves we aren’t equal in this world of ours but for a month at least some semblance of unity is achieved and for that I am grateful.
8) Non Muslims may be aware that in Islam, prayer is one of the 5 pillars. Sawm (fasting) and Zakat (compulsory charity) and Shahadah (expression of faith) tie in with Ramadan. Hajj (the pilgrimage) is the only pillar which does not have roots in Ramadan. As much as possible I will try to attend the mosque for the 5 daily prayers and during Ramadan there is a special prayer after Isha (the latest prayer in the day, approximately 10.30pm in the summer months), which lasts for an hour or so. In this heat, after a day of fasting and with a day of fasting to come this is the most arduous task to undertake. The prayer, known as Tarawih is like any other Namaaz (prayer), but takes place over an extended period of time and only during Ramadan.
As Ramadan touches on so many pillars of Islam it’s clear to me why lots of Muslims eagerly anticipate the month and try to make the most of it when it arrives.
After the first 2 or 3 days, fasting becomes the norm. The hunger dies down, the headaches and tiredness dissipates and life goes on. By week 2 I’m left wondering why I ever need a mid morning snack, or why I ever need the TV on when there’s so much in alternative I could be getting up to. A routine is born and the days don’t seem so long. You wake up, go to work, come home, pray, eat, eat a little bit more and go to be bed and the day begins once more.
9) Fasting is a very private spiritual journey. By the end of Ramadan I feel more connected to my faith than at any other time of the year. And the message is to use that feeling to lead a better life over the next 11 months before the next Ramadan season begins.
It sounds a bit silly, optimistic and not in line with the harsh realities of the times we live in and to an outsider it could all seem ridiculous.
For me though, and for millions of others, it’s a way of life. Whatever your thoughts on the good and bad of Islam (of which there are many), Muslims all over the globe in every walk of life will partake in Ramadan. 1 in 10 under 24’s in Britain identifies as Muslim and that’s why a lot more focus is placed on what happens during Ramadan to enlighten and educate others.
10) “Our Christmas” is a loose way of expressing what Eid is but it’s the end of Ramadan! Despite my thoughts that Christmas is actually YOUR Eid, a better comparison would be to Easter, which marks the end of Lent, in Christianity. Family come around, food is had and laughs are shared and it’s a release from the abstinence over the month just gone.
But that’s just my thoughts on the Ramadan experience. There’s a million other versions out there, all unique and important.
Questions are welcome. As a Muslim it’s my duty to share knowledge and experience to fight ignorance and hate.
All in all, fasting is just one of those things I do, which means a lot to me by the way I go about it and which adds a lot of my life when doing it.
11) Whilst Ramadan is an obligation on all Muslims, for obvious reasons those unable to fast can offer charity or fast at other times during the year if they want. There’s no *hard and fast* rule to fasting. The physical act is only a small part of Ramadan.
Taking medicine does not invalidate your fast. People may argue otherwise but medicine is an essential exemption. There is no right or wrong way to “do” Islam. Nothing is in or out as far as I’m concerned.
During Ramadan a lot of charity work takes place. People take this opportunity to fulfil the Zakat (charity) obligation. For every £1000 of assets, a donation to charity of £25 is required.
In a sort of summing up, Ramadan is a chance for me to look at myself, evaluate my choices, acts and try to better myself as a person. It’s not a form of punishment, rather a look at all that I have to be grateful for. If I feel hungry or thirsty what must those who have absolutely nothing feel? Basic compassion for my fellow humans all over the world is difficult without experiencing what they go through on a day to day basis in situations a thousand times worse. Whilst I can’t ever appreciate their circumstances, and nor does 30 days of Ramadan help bridge the gap, it offers a glimpse, and a glimpse more than most would ever witness.
I hope this helps describe some of the Ramadan experience to those who weren’t aware. A lot of it is personal and my experience is mine alone. If you do have questions, do fire away.
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Yasin Bangee is a writer based in the North West. He writes about his main passions, football, social justice and inequality, and offers thoughts on all things political. As a a British Muslim he has first hand experience of the rise and impact of Islamophobia. Archive of his column ‘This Week in Islamophobia‘ Find his writing at False7andahalf