How does it feel to abstain from food, drink (and sex) during daylight hours for Ramadan?

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This month, over a billion Muslims will fast during daylight hours as part of Ramadan. Stylist’s events director Mariam Ahmed, 32, explains what it means to choose to go hungry in the food-obsessed West

Photography: Sarah Brimley

It’s lunchtime and my colleague Fiona is eating a bag of Wotsits at the desk next to me. I’m trying not to stare. I love Wotsits. My tummy rumbles, but my watch tells me it’s been 10 hours since I last ate anything and I’ve got another eight hours to go.

I’m fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, which sees the 1.6 billion practising Muslims across the world forgo all food and drink each day from the first ray of dawn until the last streak of sunset. It sounds extreme but most Muslims have been practising Ramadan since they were teenagers and it is supposed to be a test. It’s a time for self reflection and spiritual growth. It’s meant to remind us how lucky we are to have food while thousands of people living in poverty don’t.

Giving up food is only part of the process, though: during the 30-day fast, we also stop swearing and moaning, give to charity and complete at least five sets of prayers throughout the day. The lack of food numbs your desires and as a result you become more aware of yourself and mindful towards others. Ramadan is a fast of the tongue as well as a fast of the body. I’m not a particularly philosophical person, but during Ramadan, I do become more introspective and less superficial.

Nevertheless, in a food obsessed country like ours, fasting is still the aspect that fascinates most non-Muslims, so my friends are always amazed to learn that we can’t chew gum or smoke and all medication has to be taken after dark. My husband is addicted to coffee so a couple of weeks before Ramadan he’ll start cutting back and friends who smoke have it doubly hard, as you can’t use nicotine patches. I know it must sound full-on to non-Muslims, but as one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith (along with declaring your faith, compulsory giving, obligatory prayer and taking a pilgrimage to Mecca), you just get on with it. I don’t mind people asking me about Ramadan, but sometimes I wish I could wander around in a T-shirt that says ‘No, not even a glass of water’, because that is a question that comes up all the time. But it’s a fast – no food, no drink. And no, I’ve never ‘cheated’ by eating something during the day. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has. I was introduced to the concept of fasting from a young age and as it’s always been such an integral part of my life it’s never difficult to be around food or the only person fasting in the office. I feel my body naturally adapts to going without, so I’ve never suffered any ill effects or passed out due to lack of food or drink.

The only tricky part comes is making sure I know when the start of Ramadan falls as the dates move every year. I’ve often ended up planning a huge blow-out ‘final meal’ with all my friends only to check my mosque’s website to discover we’ve still got another day to go. Still, once Ramadan starts, it’s easy to anticipate most things.

Fast talk

During Ramadan there’s a whole range of apps I can use to tell me what time sunrise is going to start (usually around 2.30am). So I’ll set my alarm for 30 minutes before that. My husband and I will wake up, sleepily make some porridge, down a couple of glasses of water and complete our morning prayers before going back to sleep. This year, I’ll be coming into work slightly later than normal to make up for all of the broken sleep, which affects me more than the hunger.

When you wake up, eat and pray during the night and then have to get through the next 18 hours without food or water, it can be quite hard to concentrate. And I always have to explain to my gym that I need a break clause in my contract while I’m fasting, as it would be risky to exercise.

Although we fast during daylight, we can eat after sunset and iftar is what we call the meal that breaks our daily fast. In summer, sunset doesn’t happen until around 9pm, so as evening approaches, my family and friends will start flooding my WhatsApp feed with iftar invitations and we’ll spend the hours until sunset prepping food or going to the mosque. Last year, I spent a lot of nights at the Ramadan Tent Project, which hosted talks in London’s Russell Square and offered free food to everyone, Muslim or not. The organisers encouraged homeless people to come along and we all ate together. For me, that’s really what the month is all about. But even if I don’t have the energy to be sociable, I still want to be with people who are going through the same thing, so I’ll head over to my mother-in-law’s house. Traditionally, you break your fast each night by eating a date first, as they were one of the Prophet’s favourite foods. Sometimes I’ll be so hungry that I’ll find myself standing, date-in-hand, waiting for the clock hand to move. Then it’s a free-for-all.

Taking and giving

Of course, not all Muslims have to practise Ramadan – you need to be fit and healthy to qualify and children only start fasting when they hit puberty. Your first Ramadan is exciting, but I know a lot of schools make sure Muslim pupils bring a snack ‘just in case’. You also take time off if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or on your period. I have one friend who knew she was six weeks pregnant but didn’t yet want to tell anybody, so had to ‘fake’ observe Ramadan by sneaking food into the loos where nobody could see her eating during fasting hours. But regardless of whether or not you’ve been fasting, everyone celebrates Eid al-Fitr, which literally means ‘festival of the breaking of the fast’. It’s a day of exhausted euphoria that marks the end of Ramadan and is a bit like Christmas for Muslims, where everyone eats too much and gifts are given. My aunt makes sparkly cardboard pouches that we put money into, referred to as eidi, and give to younger members of the family. When I was growing up, I’d receive enough money to last me for the rest of the year. Nowadays I find myself giving more than I receive!

Interestingly, the attitude from people towards fasting seems to have changed recently. Most world religions mention it somewhere in their doctrine – be that Lent in Christianity or Yom Kippur in Judaism – and generally, it’s for the same reasons; discipline, appreciation and self-reflection. But I wonder if the recent ‘detox’ movement plays a part, too. Outside Ramadan, practising Muslims are encouraged to fast for two days every week during the rest of the year, generally on a Monday and a Thursday. I don’t do that, but my Muslim friends and I joke that our religion invented the 5:2 diet. When everybody starts talking about ‘fast days’, we’re like, “Guys, we’ve been doing this for years. Try doing a whole month.”

The rules of Ramadan

What you can and can’t do during the holy month of Ramadan

  • Muslim fasting begins when a hilal crescent moon is sighted. However, every year there is a bit of confusion as to when this date is – most UK Muslims follow the announcement of Saudi Arabia’s religious leaders. The 30 days of Ramadan that follow represent the 30 chapters of the Qur’an that appeared to Prophet Muhammad in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which is dictated by the position of the moon.
  • As well as fasting between sunrise and sunset – known as sawm – Muslims must also abstain from smoking and sex. If someone intentionally has daytime sex during Ramadan, they must perform kaffaarah (expiation of the sin) and fast for 60 days or, if unable to, feed 60 poor people.
  • If someone eats or drinks because they forgot or were coerced, the fast is still valid but they must continue to abstain.
  • In Oman, according to Article 68 of the country’s labour law, it is illegal to work more than six hours a day during Ramadan.
  • A polite greeting during the holy month is ‘Ramadan Mubarak’, which means ‘Have a blessed Ramadan’.

As told to: Corinne Redfern
Hair and make up: Chloe Botting at S Management