It is the start of Ramadan this week. To many it is known as a month of fasting but, like Lent, the spiritual significance goes much deeper. We speak to former Chair of Bow Bengali Forum and two sixth form students from Mulberry UTC to find out what Ramadan means to them in today’s society.
The time of Ramadan changes each year depending on the lunar calendar, meaning there is no fixed date, and even the exact time it starts can’t be predicted until the day. This year, Ramadan is predicted to begin on Tuesday 15th May and end a month later Thursday 14th June. Ramadan will start at the official sighting of the first crescent of the new moon and the race is on to be the first to observe it.
Ramadan is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. It is the fourth of the five Pillars of Islam, so very important, and even a single sip of water is considered enough to invalidate the fast.
Though not everyone has to fast. The sick, the pregnant, the menstruating and the very young are not required to fast. You can be permitted to abstain from fasting if you are travelling too as it is hard to mark the correct time for prayer.
Each day during Ramadan, people fast in the sunlight hours. They have a pre-dawn meal, known as Sherey, and they cannot consume any food or water until they break their fast with Iftar. Traditionally, the fast is broken after eating some dates and drinking a small amount of water.
Ullah explains, ‘It is traditional for all Muslims to break their fast with dates, but the food people eat after that depends on the individual. Where I am from in Bangladesh, we eat Kisuri, a type of rice stew, but after the dates, people can eat whatever they want.’
Ramadan is about much more than just fasting – it is a time for self reflection. ‘In this month, Muslims must give up all their bad habits, especially during the sunlight hours’ says Ullah. ‘During Ramadan, people must let go of all anger, they must not be rude to people, and they must try to be the best versions of themselves.’ Throughout Ramadan, people also take on extra prayers each day on top of the five daily prayers and must aim to take extra care of each other.
For Ullah, Ramadan is not only a time to work on yourself in order to become closer to God, but it is a time for giving. ‘Every Ramadan, myself and other members of my family send money to shops in Bangladesh to help feed poor families throughout the month.’
Zakat, or giving, is the third Pillar of Islam. Each year, if you are over the nisab threshold (or wealth threshold) you must donate a pre-established percentage of your money to charity. This is especially important during the month of Ramadan.
The shops and businesses run by people who observe Ramadan are also affected during this time. ‘For the week before Ramadan starts, shops, especially those run by Muslim people, are very busy, as people stock up for the whole month to come’ says Ullah. ‘During Ramadan though, they are extremely quiet.’
In the UK, particularly in the summer months, the days of fasting during Ramadan are long, but Ullah explains that ‘After a few days, you get used to it. I’m hungry to begin with, but after a while, I feel lighter and my body feels healthier.’
In some Northern European countries such as Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, fasting can last an average of 20 hours or more in the summer. In these cases, some Muslim religious authorities have decreed that Muslims can either fast along with the closest Muslim country or fast along with Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
However this is not an established practice in the UK, so how do people cope with the long hours of fasting? ‘It’s obviously a lot easier in the winter, as the days are shorter’ explains 17 year old Riffat Rahim, a student at Mulberry UTC in Bow.
Her class colleague, 16 year old Nabeela Ahmed agrees, ‘The summer can be hard, but if you just sit down with a fan on you and watch TV or go on Instagram or have a nap in the afternoon, the time passes quickly.’
Indeed, the age of new media seems to help people during Ramadan. ‘At 3am when you are chopping vegetables for your early meal, there’s nothing finer than a nimble comedy on a small screen’ says Bim Adewunmi a freelance journalist and blogger for The Guardian specialising in popular culture, feminism and race.
What is it like for younger Muslims to observe Ramadan when surrounded by non-Muslims in an increasingly secular society?
Both Rahim and Ahmed say that Ramadan is the most important month of the year for them, and explain that ‘Many young people really do try and work on themselves during this month. It’s about becoming a better person, so why would you not want to do that?’ Every year, Ahmed challenges herself to read the whole Quran during the Ramadan period.
Many parents worry about their children maintaining piety, but for Ahmed and Riham at least, their desire to fast comes from themselves. ‘As a kid, I wanted to try and fast before I had hit puberty, it seemed like such a grown up thing to do’ explains Riham. ‘Some of my friends want to fast because they think it will help them lose weight, but I think to make it worthwhile, you must understand the meaning behind Ramadan’ she continues.
During exam time, it can be hard for students to continue fasting, and the girls explain that it is up to individual discretion as to whether they fast on exam days. ‘Some people do, some don’t’ says Ahmed. ‘If you think it will affect your grades and limit your capability, it is best not to fast, as knowledge is very important within Islam.’
According to Riham and Ahmed, it doesn’t bother them when their non-Muslim friends aren’t fasting. ‘It’s totally fine – I have loads of younger siblings who are too young to fast, so I’m used to people not fasting around me’ says Ahmed.
‘Many of my non-Muslim friends don’t eat in front of me’ says Riham. ‘I wouldn’t mind if they did, but it’s nice of them.’
With the end of Ramadan every year comes the festival of Eid al-Fitr. This takes place the day after Ramadan finishes and is a celebratory day, spent with family and friends. Unsurprisingly, much of Eid al-Fitr involves eating feasts.
Rahim says, ‘Every year, my mum gets so excited about what to cook and what to wear. I’m not that bothered about buying new clothes. I love it’ says Riffat. ‘It’s so nice when the whole family gets to be together.’
Eid al-Fitr this year is predicted to begin in the evening of the 14th June and end on the evening of the 15th.