Ramadan: a guide for the perplexed
I'm fasting for Ramadan. It might be a good time to lay to rest some common myths about the whole business
By Mehdi Hasan
I crawled out of bed this morning at 2.45am, exhausted and bleary-eyed. I wolfed down two eggs, two slices of toast, a croissant, half a banana and several glasses of water. Then I went back to bed.
I performed a similar routine at a similar time yesterday, and the day before that, too. Awoke, ate and slept again. Have I gone mad, I hear you ask? Why do I seem to be having pregnancy-style, middle-of-the-night cravings for fried breakfasts and lots of liquid?
I don't. There's a more prosaic explanation: it is Ramadan and I'm now on to my third day of fasting. Luckily for me, and for the 1.6 billion other Muslims across the world, there are just 27 more days to go. (Is that my stomach I hear groaning?)
Fasting, or "sawm", in Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam – the others being the "shahadah" (declaration of faith), "salat" (the five daily prayers), "zakat" (almsgiving) and the "hajj" (pilgrimage). The fast is considered to be a "wajib" or obligatory act (though there are exemptions that I'll come to in a moment).
Muslims fast for 30 days in Ramadan. Just to be clear: we fast from sunrise (hence the 2.45am wakeup) to sunset (around 9pm at the moment) each day. We don't fast for 30 days as a whole. That, of course, would be impossible. Not to mention suicidal.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is regarded by Muslims as one of the most holy months: we believe that it was during Ramadan that the Qur'an was first revealed to prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.
The Islamic calendar has been lunar since its inception in AD622, with each month beginning with the sighting of a new moon. As the lunar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year, the start date for Ramadan moves back through the western calendar each year. A few years ago, Ramadan coincided with our winter, when the days were shorter and cooler; this year, to much moaning and griping from British Muslims (yes, me included), it's fallen in the summer, with much longer and hotter days. That means the fasting isn't easy. Imagine, for instance, going on the underground in the sweltering August heat without being able to take a bottle of water with you.
In fact, you're not allowed any liquids: no water, no juice, no milk . . . The list of "banned" items and activities in Ramadan is extensive: no cigarettes, drugs, sex, bad language or bad behaviour, from sunrise to sunset. That, dear readers, is the challenge. (In case you're wondering, chewing gum isn't allowed either.)
"Has it begun?" my colleagues asked me earlier this week, their eyes expressing a mixture of sympathy, pity and – just perhaps – awe. Most (well-meaning) non-Muslims view Ramadan as deeply oppressive. Isn't it dangerous, I'm often asked? Doesn't it damage your health? Weaken you?
The short answer is No. Millions (billions?) of Muslims have been fasting for centuries, without suffering any Ramadan-specific illnesses or diseases. Vulnerable groups – the sick, the elderly, children, pregnant women, travellers – are exempt. And, in recent years, a number of academic studies have demonstrated the health benefits of fasting. According to a paper published in April by the Intermountain Medical Centre Heart Institute in Utah, it can lower the risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes, and keep blood cholesterol levels in check. The researchers found fasting could also reduce other cardiac risk factors such as excess weight, blood sugar levels and triglycerides.
Some of the world's leading athletes and sports stars have managed to fast while performing at the highest levels. Next year, Ramadan starts in July, and will cover the whole period of the Olympics. East London will be home to Muslim athletes from across the world, fasting, competing and – I guarantee you – winning medals.
It's nothing new. In the 90s, Hakeem Olajuwon, a devout Muslim considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of his generation, would often play in the NBA for the Houston Rockets while fasting. "It made me stronger and my statistics went up," he later remarked. "I was better during Ramadan, more focused." In February 1995, Olajuwon averaged an impressive 29 points per game and was named NBA Player of the Month, despite the entire month coinciding with Ramadan.
More recently, Manchester City's Kolo Touré, also a practising Muslim, has had no qualms about fasting and playing top-flight football. "It doesn't affect me physically," Touré argued during last year's Ramadan, which happened to correspond with the first month of the Premier League. "It makes me stronger. You can do it when you believe so strongly in something."
Ramadan becomes an unparalleled, month-long opportunity for personal and spiritual growth – and the fast is a deeply private act of worship. "Of the five pillars of Islam, the fast of Ramadan is perhaps the most personal expression of self-surrender to God," the American writer and convert to Islam, Jeffrey Lang, argues in his book, Even Angels Ask. "We can observe a Muslim performing the other four pillars, but, in addition to himself, only God knows if he is staying with the fast."
So far, I've managed three. Now, what time is it? Noon. Hmm. Just eight hours and 55 minutes to go.
Mehdi Hasan is the senior editor (politics) at the New Statesman, author of the e-book, Summer of Unrest: The Debt Delusion and co-author (with James Macintyre) of Ed: The Millibands and the Making of a Labour Leader.