A Time of Fasting

During the month of Ramadan in around 610 CE Muhammad ibn Abdallah, forty years old, a family man and a respected merchant in Mecca, retreated to a cave on the summit of Mount Hira, just outside Mecca, like he did every year to pray, fast and give alms to the poor. During his time on the mountain, Muhammad (PBUH) awoke one night feeling himself overpowered by a devastating presence that squeezed him tightly, until he heard the first words of a new Arabic scripture pouring from his lips. In this moment, the history of the world was profoundly changed. Muhammad (PBUH) would later call this night layla al-qadr or the “Night of Destiny”, which falls on the 27th day of Ramadan. It is said that the last 10 days are especially blessed, and is marked by a heightened sense of spirituality and many may spend their nights praying or reciting the Qu’ran.

Fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is much more than just abstinence from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse during the daylight hours. It is a month that functions as a time of renewed faith, spirituality, awareness, charity, sharing, dignity and unity. As a month of introspection, it serves as a time for the faithful to connect with the Divine, and to examine their hearts and meaning and priorities in their lives. Apart from fasting, Muslims also pay attention to their behaviour, thoughts and words. During Ramadan the faithful not only seek a closer connection with Allah, but also strive particularly hard to refrain from profane language, gossip, anger, violence, greed, and other less admirable qualities. Essentially a time of contemplation, meditation, and reflection, it also asks Muslims to look beyond the self to those in need.

A grumbling stomach serves as a reminder of Allah’s blessings, while teaching empathy with those who are less fortunate and do not always have enough to eat. Zakat (compulsory charity for those practising Muslims who have the means to give and one of the five pillars of Islam) is said to be rewarded more on Judgement Day when given during this holy month.  In most Islamic countries zakat is voluntary, though, and aims to foster a sense of solidarity in the community (ummah). Sadaqah, or voluntary charity, is another way of looking beyond the self, and encompasses any act of giving that is out of compassion, fraternity, love or generosity.

During Ramadan each day starts with the predawn and pre-fast meal called suhoor, followed by the first prayer of the day (Fajr). Fasting ends at sunset with iftar, when the call to prayer is heard. The fast is usually broken by eating a couple of dates and drinking some water before the Magrib prayer (4th prayer of the day), which is followed by the evening meal. These meals range from simple meals shared with family members to lavish banquets where families, friends and community gather.

Ramadan starts with the first sighting of the crescent moon after the new moon and ends with the sighting of the new moon. The public holiday of Eid al Fitr which falls on the first day of the next month (Shawwal), is a joyful celebration that marks the official end of the holy month.

Although fasting is only mandatory once puberty is reached, children often emulate the grown-ups by aspiring to fast too, even though this can easily be broken with the words: “I’m hungry mummy!” Exceptions are made for people traveling, or those who are ill, pregnant or breast-feeding. The days that are missed can easily be made up by fasting before the start of the next Ramadan, but it is up to each individual and his/her conscience, and is not regulated as such. Women who are menstruating are not allowed to fast, but these days are, again, easily made up before the next Ramadan.

During Ramadan the workday is shortened to six hours, and business hours are adjusted. As it is illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public, all restaurants are closed daily until iftar. Restaurants and fast food outlets can obtain a special licence to operate a take-away/drive-through or delivery service, while some hotels operate restaurants that are discreetly screened off from public view.

Ramadan started at sunset on Thursday, 19 July in the UAE, but the date differ slightly depending on where in the world you find yourself. With summer temperatures soaring deep into the 40°C, thirst is most probably one of the most difficult things to contend with, as one even gets thirsty in cool air-conditioned spaces. Even for non-Muslim members of the community, it is inevitable to go without food or drink for prolonged periods of time when working or traveling in the region.

Life slows down a bit during this time, as the heat in combination with fasting, serve to lower energy levels substantially. It is also a time to be extra vigilant when driving, as tiredness and difficulty to focus tend to lead to an increase in accidents. Arriving back in the UAE after a two-week absence on the third day of Ramadan, we not only drove past an accident where the driver did not survive, but we watched our taxi driver’s battle to stay alert.

Living for the first time in a Muslim country, and experiencing my first Ramadan, I can only but admire Muslims for their practical faith, as fasting is neither an easy nor simple practise.

Ramadan Kareem to all those who are fasting!