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05 April 2022

It's 6:30pm and as the sun sets, I'm sitting down with my Muslim friends awaiting the official sunset time to have my first meal in 12 hours. We start off with a glass of water followed by some dates and then on to the feast. There is biryani, kebabs, parathas and meat curries to choose from. This is Iftar, a time when Muslims around the world break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

What is Ramadan?

The ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar and the most sacred month. It is believed that it was during this month that Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran, Islam's sacred text, to Prophet Mohammed, on a night known as "The Night of Power" (or Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic).

During the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast every day from dawn to dusk. It is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline - of deep contemplation of one's relationship with God, extra prayer, increased charity and generosity and the intense study of the Quran. It is also a time of celebration and joy, to be spent with loved ones.

At the end of Ramadan there’s a big three-day celebration called Eid ul-Fitr, or the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. Similar to Christmas, it is a religious holiday where everyone comes together for big meals with family and friends, exchanges presents, and generally has a lovely time.

Fasting is an important part of Ramadan

Fasting (sawm) during Ramadan is one of the five pillars - or duties - of Islam, along with the testimony of faith (shahada), prayer (salat), charitable giving (zakat) and making a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). All Muslims are required to take part every year, though there are special dispensations for those who are ill, pregnant or nursing, menstruating, travelling and for young children and the elderly.

The practice of fasting serves several spiritual and social purposes: to remind one of their human frailty and their dependence on God for sustenance, to show what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty so that they feel compassion for (and a duty to help) the poor and needy and to reduce the distractions in life so they can more clearly focus on their relationship with God.

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating any food, drinking any liquids, smoking and engaging in any sexual activity, from dawn to dusk. That includes taking medication (even if you swallow a pill dry, without drinking any water). Chewing gum is also prohibited.

Doing any of those things "invalidates" your fast for the day, and you just start over the next day. To make up for days you didn't fast, you can either fast later in the year (either all at once or a day here and there) or provide a meal to a needy person for each day you missed.

There’s more to Ramadan than fasting

Muslims are also supposed to try to curb negative thoughts and emotions like jealousy and anger, and even lesser things like swearing, complaining and gossiping during the month. Some people may also choose to give up or limit activities like listening to music and watching television, often in favour of listening to recitations of the Quran.

Charitable giving (zakat) is another of the five pillars of Islam and during Ramadan, I’ve known a few Muslims who prefer making their yearly donations of 2.5% of their wealth during this time. Alongside the yearly zakat, one is also required to make a donation, called Zakat Ul Fitrana, of the value of one daily meal before Eid Ul-Fitr. In monetary terms this equates to around £5 per member in the household.

My experience of Ramadan outside the UK

Growing up in a Muslim country like the UAE in the 80s and 90s, I had several Muslim friends and it was a rule in Dubai that restaurants and cafes could not serve food or drink during the day and neither could the population eat or drink in public.

I loved the Iftar parties at my friends' homes and would sometimes join them in fasting through the day just to experience and appreciate the discipline one requires to religiously do it through the month. I also grew to appreciate how they carried out their day-to-day work and activities without complaint, nor did they make a big fuss about fasting.

I was quite aware of people who were fasting and would normally have my lunch in private. However, it was quite refreshing to learn later, and especially when I was consulting my fellow colleagues while researching for this blog, that it was ok for me to be myself around people who were fasting; just that I needed to be aware of not offering them food or drink, nor take offence if they politely declined.

A day in the life of someone recognising Ramadan

  • An early start - During Ramadan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the first meal of the day (called Suhoor), which has to last until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein foods and drinking as much water as possible right up until dawn, after which you can't eat or drink anything.

  • Morning prayer - At dawn, they perform the morning prayer. Since it's usually still pretty early, many go back to sleep for a bit before waking up again to get ready for the day.

  • Attending school/work - Muslims are not supposed to avoid work or school or any other normal duties during the day just because they are fasting. In many Muslim countries, however, businesses and schools may reduce their hours during the day or close entirely. For the most part though, Muslims go about their daily business as we normally would, despite not being able to eat or drink anything the whole day.

  • Iftar and a mosque visit - At sunset (the official times are published by the local mosque well ahead of time), it's time for Iftar and a lavish spread which is often shared with family and friends in one another's homes throughout the month

  • Evening prayers - After Iftar, it is time to head to the mosque for evening prayers followed by a special prayer (Tarawih) that is only recited during Ramadan. Then it's off to bed for a few hours of sleep before it's time to wake up and start all over again.

Supporting those around you

As mentioned earlier, Ramadan is a month which gives Muslims an opportunity to reflect, think of the less fortunate and practice self-discipline. For a non Muslim like me, it is definitely a chance to show solidarity with my Muslim friends who are fasting, to appreciate culture and tradition and most of all try out delicious food after sunset.

So I have a suggestion this Ramadan… On the 2nd of April, wish your Muslim workmates, family or friends a "Ramadan Kareem" (which means "have a generous Ramadan"), and most importantly, be considerate to our Muslim friends who are celebrating this extraordinary month of Ramadan.