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Ramadan: Fasting, Feasting, and Focus

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf, forthcoming this fall from Beacon Press. She is a leading commentator on British Islam, a columnist for EMEL magazine, a regular contributor to the Guardian and the BBC, and author of the award-winning blog, Spirit21. This post originally appeared on The National website.

Janmohamed My first memories of Ramadan are as a child during the long days of late summer in England. The fasts stretched from just after 2am, when the first light of dawn began to peep through the night sky, till 9pm when it finally set. This Ramadan will be the same.

I was too young to fast then but old enough to know that something magical was happening in these 30 days. "Normal life" came to a stop, and everyone was swept up in the excitement and focused on praying, reading the Quran and of course, food.

Barely five years old, I’d be packed off to bed at eight in the evening so I’d be fresh for school the next day, and as a result I missed out on participating in the family ritual of iftar when it got dark. Then the family would break their fasts with dates.

There was a prayer that they always recited as they bit into their first morsel: “Oh my Lord, it is for You that I fasted, and it is with your sustenance that I break my fast.” It was a reminder that whether eating or not eating, everything was from God and for God.

The weekends were a different matter. We went to the mosque to break our fast with other families. Plates of dates and kettles of tea and coffee were served and then the congregation would rise together for the ritual evening prayer, Maghreb, before sharing a meal. It is this community spirit that is one of the great highlights of Ramadan. People fast together, pray together and eat together.

By the time I was old enough to fast, Ramadan fell earlier in the summer, since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar year which is 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year. By now it was June, the longest and probably hottest days of the UK calendar. But I thought nothing of it. I went to school and took part in athletics classes in the midday sun, running in the heat without water.

The rules for fasting in Ramadan are laid out in the Quran. I often reflect that, with today’s body-obsessed society, spending 30 days focusing on the inner rather than the outer doesn’t seem such a bad idea. It’s my morning coffee I miss most but if Ramadan proves anything it’s that addictions can be broken. I find the first few days difficult as the body adjusts. I start to realize how many hours of the day are dedicated to preparing, consuming and tidying up after meals. I also realize how much of my day is filled with frivolities. I feel liberated, as life becomes unexpectedly more productive, resulting in more time for contemplation, spiritual reflection, and even the odd nap. In fact, each breath of the person who fasts is considered worship, awake or asleep.

One of the great cultural traditions of Ramadan is the big evening feast, with special foods. But I feel it is better to stick closely to the usual meal patterns, with just the odd treat here or there. After all, one of the philosophies of Ramadan includes empathizing with those who have less than us. That's just not possible if you are eating more than usual, with special treats. Strangely, some people put on weight during Ramadan.

The hardest part of fasting, is "fasting of the tongue." No more harsh words, anger, gossip. It’s easier said than done, especially when you haven’t eaten all day. I write the words "Be Nice" on my hand to remind me.

The first day after Ramadan is the festival of Eid. Even though I am filled with excitement and achievement there is a tinge of sadness as the month of Ramadan is over.