When I mention to Non-Muslims living in the UK that I’m fasting, I usually get the same incredulous reaction: 'What? You don’t eat or drink during the day for a whole month? Oh, I don’t think I could ever do that.' Then they swiftly move on to why someone would do this willingly by asking: ‘Why do you torture yourself like this?’ and then finally, as if there is some sort of covert Ramadan police on patrol enforcing the fast, they add: ‘Why don’t you have a quick nibble when no one is looking?’
There is no compulsion in religion and the Holy Quran, Chapter 2 “The Calf” Verse 183 states:
‘O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you (the Christians and the Jews), so that you may guard against evil’
Well, how does not eating and drinking help you guard against evil exactly?
The answer is that it obviously doesn’t. In fact so many crimes have been committed throughout history and are still being committed all over the world because of the basic human need to feed oneself.
However fasting is not just about depriving yourself of food, drink, nicotine, drugs and marital relations during the daylight hours, it is much more than that! It’s all about becoming the best person that you are capable of being! You are required not to be deceitful, not to use profanities, not to raise your voice in anger, not to engage in any envy or back-biting, not to partake in gambling and not to have lustful or impure thoughts. Thereby refraining yourself from committing any major or minor sins. Another substantial benefit of fasting can be to rid yourself of any dependencies or addictions, as well as prepare oneself to face any unforeseen, financial hardships.
In addition, Muslims are encouraged to do good deeds such as exhibiting good manners, giving to charity, forgiving others, carrying out selfless acts, feeding the poor, visiting family members and the sick, performing prayers and reciting the Quran (ideally at the mosque), volunteering to help the needy and protecting the environment.
In essence, if you can train yourself to control your basic bodily desires and cleanse your mind of evil thoughts and actions then you can potentially evolve your spirituality and become a much better person.
Having established why fasting can be a rewarding enterprise, let’s move on to the practicalities of observing the fast.
In the UK, a Ramadan day begins around 2am, when the family awakes and prepares ‘Sehri’ or ‘Suhoor’, the pre-dawn meal. What is consumed is down to individual choice and can range from a simple breakfast to a full blown dinner. It is however very important to drink a good quantity of water at this time to ensure the body remains hydrated during the day. Just before Dawn (usually between 3-3:30am), each individual would go and brush their teeth and perform their ablutions in readiness for the ‘Fajr’ prayer. After performing the prayer, they try and get back to sleep although this is not always easy to achieve.
A normal working day would then follow with the individual waking in the morning sometimes with a parched throat and preparing for work in the usual way but obviously without any breakfast. At this stage, the body does not feel any different. However as the day progresses and depending on the stresses and strains it brings, you can hear your stomach grumbling, find difficulty in getting your words out of a dry throat, become more mindful of the smell of your breath, feel much colder than usual but most of all you suffer drowsiness and lack energy due to the absence of an uninterrupted, good night’s sleep.
It is interesting how the mind and body adapts to fasting. On a usual day outside of Ramadan, missing lunch would normally leave you unbearable by the evening to the point you think you could collapse any minute but during Ramadan, the body doesn’t complain so much and the mind is attuned to ignoring it anyway. You can reach such levels of self-control that you can happily sit and watch others eat a three course meal, without the slightest irritation, so please don’t feel too embarrassed about eating in front of someone that’s fasting. However your inner body strength and overall fitness also have a great bearing on what you can physically achieve while fasting. In fact, some well-known sports stars have reportedly performed their duties in important competitions while fasting.
Once you get home, you might be lucky enough to get in a short, satiating snooze before you start preparing to break your fast around 9pm. The fast is broken after 18 hours with a date and sip of water. Again there are many traditional and cultural meals for breaking the fast for the Iftar meal. Nutritionists advise eating fruits, nuts and hydrating vegetables although invariably a lot of high-sugar and fried foods are consumed.
It is often assumed that Muslims lose weight during Ramadan, however in my experience the contrary is true. The two major meals consumed in the day are followed by periods on inactivity which prevents food from properly being digested.The problem with sleeping after eating is that your body is most comfortable digesting food in an upright position, allowing it to absorb food more easily. This can be compounded by a level of over-eating during 'Suhoor' and 'Iftar'.
Just when the day is nearly over around 10pm, it is time for some to go to the mosque to perform the non-obligatory Taraweeh prayer where a full chapter of the Quran is recited daily. This can last a couple of hours and it is just after midnight that you return home to sleep before rising at 2am to start the day cycle again.
This can be quite a gruelling and tiring schedule, so it is therefore ordained that the elderly, the ill, pregnant or breastfeeding women, menstruating women, travellers and pre-pubescent children are exempt from fasting in Islam.
Once Ramadan is over, it is not a feeling of relief of a hardship that has passed but a sense that a time, in which we aspired to achieving our personal perfection to whatever modicum of success, has passed and much as we try to hold on to it for longer, it will fade and not return to us for another year. If only we could cling to the Ramadan spirit for the rest of our living days.