Long Reads

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

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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 Four: We’re now in the last 10 days of Ramadan, and for me it’s a good time to reflect on how this month has gone.

One of my friends asked this week if I felt spiritually different during Ramadan. I generally feel more at peace, partly because I’m more focused on my faith during this month than at any other time, and partly because that makes me refocus and reassess in other areas of my life too; it makes me think about what is important (family, friends, love) and what’s not (status, power).

This Ramadan, I’ve been hyper aware of my actions, and more conscious about when I need to contribute something to a discussion – and when I really, really don’t. I think this is partly due to the amount of time I spend on social media; I’m constantly scrolling through Twitter, and the disadvantage of working from home has been that I’m not regularly seeing lots of people, so my phone is my connection to the outside world. It’s easy when you’re behind a screen to react to things quickly, and there have been a few times this month where I’ve started typing out a critical tweet, or wanted to jump into a discussion about a celebrity with my two cents. But instead, I’ve stopped and considered whether I actually need to say anything, and what contribution those two cents would really make. Ramadan has been great for making me more aware of my words and actions and their effects, and I hope to carry that through with me into the rest of the year.

Sarah has been trying to be less reactive on social media during Ramadan

That’s not to say I’ve been a saint. I’ve found this Ramadan particularly tiring (I don’t know if it’s a sign of getting older, or perhaps it’s just the long days). This has made me a little snappy and short at times, or more likely to say a mean word about something (mostly train services), or more usually, think unkind thoughts. But I’m aware of how those reactions don’t make me feel good, and that’s something I want to work on - a little bit more kindness wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Kindness is one of the things inherent in the Ramadan Tent Project, where I shared an iftari this week with friends and strangers. The project holds iftaris in London every night during the month of fasting, with food donated by businesses and other organisations, and volunteers running the whole thing. People who attend are of all ages, from all over the world, Muslim and non-Muslim. At the Ramadan Tent Project all of those who are able to sit on the floor, regardless of whether they’re students or CEOs, and everyone eats the same food. It’s a real illustration of how we’re all equal.

The biggest thing I take away from Ramadan each year is that my appreciation for food grows. It makes me see food not just as sustenance and a basic human need, but also as something that has the power to bring people together. I think that is really special.

Sarah and friends at the Ramadan Tent Project

Week Three: When non-Muslims hear I’m fasting, I often get some variation of the following, usually said in a tone that implies the speaker is both impressed and thinks I’m slightly strange: “Oh wow. That must be so hard. I could never do that, I’d get so hungry and thirsty.” And look, it is hard, but not in the way that people often think it is.

Not eating and drinking (no, not even water) is not as difficult as you might think it is, even when fasts are 18 hours long. Your body is amazing, and if you’re healthy, it can deal with fasting for periods of time.

But we’re halfway through Ramadan now, and I have to confess, I’m tired. When Ramadan is in summer, as it is now, sleep schedules get thrown out of whack. Here’s how a typical day looks for me during the month:

2.20am: Wake up, eat, pray fajr (the dawn prayer), go back to bed.

8.30-8.45am: Wake up for work, if I’m working from home. If I’m doing a full day in London, my alarm will go off at 6am.

1pm: Take a break from work to pray zuhr and read Quran.

5pm: If I’m at home, I’ll shut my laptop and crawl into bed for a nap.

7pm: Wake up, pray asr, get dinner ready.

9.10pm (approximately): Open fast with dates and water, read maghrib, eat!

10.45pm: Read isha, including the Ramadan prayers, called taraweeh.

11.45pm: Bed.

“We’re halfway through Ramadan now, and I have to confess, I’m tired.”

I always feel super awake during the first few days of Ramadan, but now that I’m two weeks in, the tiredness has started to settle in. Gone are the breakfasts of shakshuka and smashed avocado on toast – now I’m shovelling down toast and a massive glass of water with my eyes half closed, eager to get back into bed.

Dinner is better, as I’m still eating proper meals, but I’ve had a day or two this week where my appetite has led to some strange choices: pakoras, garlic bread and a side of pasta salad one night, vegetarian sushi followed by roast chicken and steamed asparagus another.

I’ve found that at this stage, when two weeks of fasting have gone and there are still two weeks left, the crucial thing for me is to listen to my body and to my mind, and to nourish them in small ways.

I nap when I need to, and I don’t feel guilty about it, because it helps me feel less tired. When I am able to have food, I drink as much water as possible, to ensure I’m hydrated during fasting hours. I don’t skimp on my skincare routine, because it makes me feel refreshed, and adding spots on top of fasting is no fun. I make sure I drop texts to friends, even if it’s just to say hi, so that I feel connected and remember I’m not alone. I treat myself to a small bit of chocolate in the evening, a sweet reward for a day’s fasting. And if I want to have garlic bread with pakoras for dinner, I’ll do that, because I know it won’t be an everyday occurrence.

So to those people who always say Ramadan must be difficult, I want to say, yes, some days I do find it hard. But it’s far from impossible if I listen to what my mind and my body are telling me, and I know that at the end of the month I’ll feel a sense of spiritual wellbeing that makes it all worth it.

“I drink as much water as possible, to ensure I’m hydrated during fasting hours.”

Week Two: Ramadan is a time to break bad habits, and to form new good ones. One of the bad habits I leave behind each year, temporarily at least, is watching too much rubbish TV. I replace this with more reading, and one of the things I read more of is the Quran.

Ramadan is the one time of year when I pick up the Quran nearly every day, and I always complete one full reading of Islam’s holy book during the month. This year I started on the first fast, and have been reading for about an hour after my zuhr prayer (the second prayer of the day, which takes place around lunchtime), as by the time the evening rolls around my concentration isn’t great, plus there’s dinner to prepare. I like to try and complete the Quran on Laylat Al Qadr, traditionally marked on the 27th night of Ramadan - it’s known as the Night of Power and commemorates the moment that the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

As a child, I, like many other Muslim children, learnt to read the Quran in Arabic. I started out reading with my mum and dad, and when I was a little older I would go to the local mosque each Sunday to read with a kindly, patient imam who travelled from London. To celebrate completing my first reading of the Quran, my parents bought mithai (traditional sweets) to hand out to people at the mosque and to our family to celebrate.

Having finished the Quran, I stopped reading it every day, and then every week. As an adult, I had only been reading it fairly sporadically until the last year or so. Unlike my prayers, which I do every day, I now mostly only pick up the Quran on a Friday, when I read Surah Kahf - a section that contains four stories imparting lessons about faith, wealth, knowledge and power.

“I, like many other Muslim children, learnt to read the Quran in Arabic.”

For 2018, I hope my habit of reading the Quran nearly every day during Ramadan extends into the rest of the year. I tell myself I’ll read it a few times a week, but then I say there’s no time, or I’m too tired or too busy with work. I know these are just excuses because when I do take the time, I find reading the Quran to be a very peaceful, soothing experience. For me, it’s a bit of mindfulness, a form of self-care. My faith has always been a very personal thing for me: I feel close to Allah when it’s just me on my prayer mat reading namaaz, or sitting, the sun streaming through a window, absorbed in my Quran.

When I was younger I’d read my mum’s Quran. She’s since sewn a new cloth jacket to protect it, but when I read it, it always used to be covered in a shiny, royal blue material, made soft by years of handling. I now have my own Quran, which used to belong to my grandfather, and which was brought back from Pakistan for me after he passed away. It still has pieces of paper he left in it marking passages; it reminds me that the Quran was read for years before I was even born, and it makes me feel connected to family members long gone, a feeling that is particularly strong during Ramadan.

I’m sure I’ll get back to some of my bad habits soon after the end of the month (don’t worry Netflix, I haven’t abandoned you). But I hope that I can get to a place where I regularly take 10 minutes to myself a few times a week, to sit and read my Quran, to forget the world around me, and to feel as close to my faith as I do during Ramadan.

“I feel close to Allah when it’s just me… sitting, the sun streaming through a window, absorbed in my Quran.”

Week One: 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.

Preparation for the month ahead: 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, Matt Baxter, Jenna Christina, Tony Lam Hoang, Joseph Greve, Getty