Long Reads

This is what it’s really like to observe the month of Ramadan

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi
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Over the next month, freelance journalist Sarah Shaffi will be keeping a Ramadan diary for stylist.co.uk, documenting how the month of fasting, observed by millions of Muslims across the world, unfolds for her…

Week Two: I found out when Ramadan was starting at around mid-morning on Tuesday, when I saw a tweet saying the new moon had not been seen in Australia, so the first fast would be on Thursday. Throughout the rest of the day my phone blew up as various aunties (none of them blood relatives, but I’m Asian, so all women my mum’s age and older are aunties to me) flooded WhatsApp with messages about the start of Ramadan.

Growing up in Pakistan, my mum and her family didn’t have tweets or WhatsApp messages to tell them when Ramadan was beginning. Instead, they and their neighbours would climb up onto the roofs of their houses to look for the new moon after they read their Maghrib prayer. Soon after, if the moon had been sighted, fireworks would go off to let everyone in the area know that the month of fasting was a go. There’s definitely something magical about that.

When my mum moved to the UK after getting married, she would call our relatives in Pakistan on a payphone – and they would all gather at the one house in their street that had a phone. Nowadays, we’re exchanging memes with my cousins on WhatsApp and chatting with my aunts and uncles via Skype.

I still do my daily prayers and read the Quran (the latter not as much as I should, but that’s a topic for a future diary entry) in the physical world, but I also use the digital world throughout Ramadan and beyond to supplement my practising of my religion.

Every day I get an email with a Hadith – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – which provides me with a moment of reflection in a busy day. I use apps for everything from finding the direction of prayer if I’m away from home, to notifying me when I need to open my fast. Instagram accounts like My Big Fat Halal Blog and Halal Grubbin’ tell me where I can find good halal food (during Ramadan they also make me hungry, so I try not to look too much). I can watch the first Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, deliver a Ramadan message via Twitter (below), and take part in #RamadanReadathon, a campaign celebrating Muslim authors.

Throughout Ramadan I listen to See Something, Say Something, a podcast hosted by Ahmed Ali Akbar exploring Muslim life. Although its focus is on America, the discussions are always relatable, fascinating and filled with humour. During Ramadan the podcast is also broadcasting Ramadan Lunch Break, a weekly live TV show to keep you company while non-Muslim colleagues tuck into lunch at their desks!

Technology has many downsides, but one of its upsides is the way it makes me feel closer to the ummah (the word for the Muslim community across the world), no matter which country we’re in or which language we speak. We might have lost the magic of climbing to the roofs of our houses and seeing the moon with our own eyes, but technology has given us the tools to practice our religion and bring us together in new ways.

Week One: Here’s how I wanted to be prepping physically for Ramadan: getting plenty of sleep, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, doing regular exercise, and drinking lots of water.

Here’s how I’ve actually prepped so far: lights out after 12am, an hour of tossing and turning in bed, up again early in the morning, carb-loading throughout the day like I’m about to run a marathon, and two 5km “runs” in about four weeks. In my defence, I have been drinking plenty of water, so that’s a win?

But Ramadan - the month where Muslims fast from dawn to sunset each day - isn’t just about the act of giving up food and drink, and the physical preparation is one small part of the lead-up to the period. More important for me than the physical preparation, is the mental and spiritual preparation.

Ramadan isn’t just about the act of giving up food and drink

Ramadan is about developing powers of self-control and attaining nearness to Allah, and about charity and generosity, and fasting is one of the ways that Muslims do that. I’ve been trying to mentally prepare for Ramadan, which is also a month where Muslims try and refrain from swearing and unkind thoughts, words and deeds, and abstain from sex during daylight hours. I’ve been focusing less on negative things (this mainly involves trying to ignore world politics), trying not to get caught up in petty arguments and gossip (I gave up the Sidebar of Shame years ago, thank goodness), and generally being a kinder person.

The act of not eating and drinking for 18 or 19 hours at a time also reminds me just how lucky I am to live in a place and have the resources to never have to worry about not having enough to eat.

The month before Ramadan is when I calculate my zakat. One of the five pillars of Islam, zakat requires you to give 2.5% of your wealth to charity. The calculation includes, among other things, any savings in the bank, the value of any gold or silver you own and the value of any stocks and shares in your name - minus things like debts - but does not include, for example, the value of your house or car.

As fasting is compulsory for all (exemptions include if you’re ill, have not reached puberty, are pregnant or very elderly), even those in dire circumstances observe the month, including refugees escaping the ruinous war in Syria. A portion of my zakat this year will go to charities which provide Ramadan food parcels, an essential resource for those who don’t have enough to eat, while the rest will go to a number of charities close to my heart.

As well as the physical and spiritual benefits, for me personally, Ramadan is also a time of connection. As well as connection to Allah through fasting and prayer, it’s also a time for me to connect, or reconnect, with family and friends. Over the next few days, ahead of the first day of Ramadan on 15 May, I’ll be getting in touch with friends near and far, those I see regularly and those I haven’t spoken to in a while, to wish them the best for the month ahead.

If you’re celebrating Ramadan this year, I wish you the best for the month ahead too. Ramadan Mubarak!

Images: Unsplash, Matt Hoffman, Frank Flores