Comment by Sarwat Tasneem
In this most important month in the Islamic calendar, in which the Quran was revealed, more than one billion Muslims across the world observe, from sunrise to sunset, fasting without water, abstinence from intimate relations and smoking. This year Ramadan runs from mid-April to mid-May.
It is a test of psychological, physiological and emotional resilience but produces an overwhelming feeling of wellness — physical, mental and spiritual.
The fast begins after eating sahūr, a well-balanced meal, just before dawn, which prepares for the day ahead. This is followed by the first prayer — fajr.
The fast is broken at sunset after the Maghrib prayer, with the iftar, a meal which can be taken individually or in community.
The initial fast is always the most difficult and — depending upon where in the world you live (the lunar calendar dictates the length of the fasting day) — it can either be fairly comfortable or the emotions and body will struggle with nature’s external elements. The necessity of work is a welcome distraction.
But fasting is as much about control of the mind and consciousness, as it is about refraining from food and water. Concentration levels are heightened throughout the month and the body gains the benefits, experienced through stages.
The first few days, with blood sugar levels dropping while the body begins to cleanse itself, experiencing headaches is the norm and can be testing. When we lose full control of our “wants” we tend to look inward and assess our lives. The mind can be a distraction. This is all part of self-purification.
As we become accustomed to fasting, our digestive system cleanses and organs begin to eliminate themselves of toxins — the colon, liver, kidney and lungs. A rhythm is formed. As energy levels increase and the mind is better able to concentrate, a sense of productivity without thinking about food is met.
In the final 10 days, we’re in the home stretch. Awareness of better memory and concentration allows one to reap the rewards of mind and soul practice — particularly as we know that our internal organs are working to maximum capacity.
Ramadan is usually observed in a context of community and engagement. I recall the culturally rich iftars in the Middle East and Gulf where I lived for many years. The anticipation, the friends of different religions, beliefs and none who would welcome an invitation to both an opulent dining experience and — more inquisitively — to one’s home.
The simplicity of breaking a fast at sunset with a date and a cup of water alongside hundreds of women and men — with the sky as your canopy in the courtyard of a mosque, and the coolness of the stone below alleviating the day’s challenge — is truly magical.
For Shia communities, women, young people and family take part in programmes to develop knowledge — the essence of gaining spiritual growth.
Scholars at the “masjid” (mosque) will host a talk every night, on ethics and morals, traditions of the faith and societal issues such as integration and humanity, all referencing sacred text. Women can curate their own programme if needed, as mosques accommodate female spaces and speakers.
Families and individuals will sponsor iftars each night during the holy month, and entire communities are fed, while donations to charities and causes for the needy and orphaned abroad build momentum. We have the luxury to consume food and water daily: many do not.
But for the second year, programmes are now online and interventions have been introduced to keep spiritual and personal development flourishing.
Shia faith leaders in London have organised sessions for young people, with one event being a cemetery visit to discuss and contextualise the removal of materialistic wants and the reality of life’s journey.
Several places of worship are now vaccination centres: the first transformed in this way was a Shia mosque. And the constant presence of the pandemic has emphasised the importance of a cohesive community, after a difficult year. Ramadan has become more poignant than ever.
Intra-faith webinars continue, building upon the importance of unity in society. There is a recitation of the Quran, and the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are relayed.
There is a slightly later breaking of the fast for Shia to ensure the sun has completely set. It is normal, however, to enjoy iftar in communities together, side by side.
Every year the month of Ramadan will hold unique meaning to each Muslim, in the process of seeking nearness to the divine. We experience virtue and loss and apply those learnings to our life.
It is personal, it is challenging but in the spirit of Ramadan, it is about putting others first, and inviting people regardless of belief to experience, share and break bread together.
Sarwat Tasneem is a behavioural change adviser to organisations and individuals; and faith adviser to Near Neighbours, the Church Urban Fund’s programme encouraging diverse communities to work together.