By Anna-Maria Ramzy
For the past week, Muslims across the country have been seen mysteriously declining their morning coffee at work; areas well populated with Muslims have been miraculously emptied at sunset; and strange noises have been heard coming from their houses in the early hours of the morning…
This can only mean one thing. It is Ramadhan. Easily the most famous month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadhan is a time when Muslims and non-Muslims alike find themselves pondering the reasons for a thirty day fast. Misconceptions abound. The most common one being that Muslims are allowed to drink, and upon discovering the contrary, shock and horror often arises. How could one possibly fast through a British (ahem) ‘summer’?! Another is that Muslims, somehow fast the whole thirty days without break. This, I am happy to tell you, is not true.
So what exactly then, does Ramadhan entail? And what could Muslims possibly get out of it?
For Muslims, Ramadhan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, is of course a time of fasting, known as sawm, the third pillar of Islam. Those adhering to the practice must not eat, drink, smoke or engage in any sexual relations from dawn until dusk. Fasting is not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon. Many other faiths practise it in various forms, and the Qur’an makes mention of this: ‘O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint.’ (2.183)
It is the last part of this verse which highlights one of the main reasons for fasting. Tattaqun: the learning of ‘self-restraint’. The human being is, more often than not, a slave to his stomach, and rarely do we tell it ‘no’. Lunchtime comes and we feel the rumble, which is usually immediately satiated by one of the many millions of delicacies we are fortunate to have at our fingertips. The same happens at teatime, supper, dinner, snack time, break time, elevenses. Our day can end up revolving around meal times and the cliché ‘eating to live not living to eat’ is in danger of being reversed.
Ramadhan is therefore a chance for Muslims to strengthen their self-discipline, and to realise that we do not need half the food we consume. It saddens me greatly to see that this is lost in many households, where iftar (the breaking of the fast) is seen as a time to compensate for all meals missed. What the breaking of the fast is intended to do is to make people appreciate food more. We have the blessing of food, while others go through each day, not worrying about what they will eat that night, but whether they will even survive until tomorrow. Even in our own country, there are those who go without. Ramadhan is a prick to the consciences. That pang of hunger around teatime is nothing. We know that dinner is waiting and our fridges are full. The reminder is stark, and necessary.
The word tattaqun, in Arabic, is also often translated as becoming ‘God-conscious’ and this goes further to highlighting the real ethos of Ramadhan. The month is not just about abstinence, it is also about enrichment. Whilst consumption is prohibited in daylight hours, the consumption of ‘soul food’ is highly encouraged. Charity is one example. Experiencing the pangs of hunger, however slight in comparison, hammers home the terrible reality of those in the Horn of Africa, and as a result encourages many to donate during this month.
Ramadhan is also the month in which the sequence of Qur’an revelations began, brought down by the angel Gabriel from God to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Muslims believe a link was established between heaven and earth back then, and many try to return to the Qur’an with renewed vigour, attempting to read it, understand it, and act upon its guidance, in the hope of renewing their own channel of communication with God.
The month is also a time of increased worship for Muslims, since blessings for such acts are multiplied during Ramadhan. One of these acts is prayer, in particular the night prayers known as tarawih. These are performed every night by worshippers in congregation. In this respect, the month serves not only to enhance individuals’ lives and their relationships with God, but also the community spirit. Further enhanced by the Eid celebration which marks the end of the month. On Eid day, Muslims gather together to pray and (astonishingly to some) thank God for the month which has passed. Whilst Ramadhan may be seen by many as a month of deprivation, to Muslims it is far more than this. It is a month of spiritual nourishment, a chance to feed our souls.
Anna-Maria Ramzy is Spirituality Sub-Editor of the Platform and Co-Director of the Oxford Muslim Women’s Association. A keen writer with a penchant for poetry, she is currently studying for her undergraduate degree in Oriental Studies (Arabic, Persian and Islamic Studies) at Oxford University.
Artwork by Rukia Begum, exclusively for The Platform.
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