Ramadan 101: Everything you need to know about a month of fasting, prayer and arguing about the moon
Ramadan - what's all that about?
If you work alongside Muslim colleagues or have Muslim mates, you'll no doubt be aware that Ramadan has started. You may also have spotted your favourite football club tweeting about 'Ramadan Mubarak' and desperately trying to search for their skills compilation on YouTube.
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) May 16, 2018
Ramadan is one of those things that many people are vaguely aware of, but without a proper understanding. Thing is, you don't want to seem ignorant or in any way culturally insensitive. In reality, most practicing Muslims would welcome any questions and be happy to fill you in.
By way of a brief and simple intro, here are some frequently asked questions and our attempt at answering them:
What is Ramadan then?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is a particularly holy time for Muslims because they believe that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad during the month.
What's the skinny? (...no pun intended)
First and foremost, Ramadan is a month of deep spirituality. It's like, if a Muslim hasn't been behaving very Muslim-y for the rest of the year, Ramadan is a chance to refocus on their faith.
It's a bit like when people make New Year's resolutions or start going to the gym in January - a fresh start to behave how you would like to if you didn't get lazy/sloppy.
So Muslims tend to - or try to - step away from the triviality of their day-to-day obsessions, and pray more, read more religious literature and generally behave in a kinder, more generous way.
For anyone taking part, I hope you have a truly blessed & fulfilling Ramadan.
I know a lot of people can’t be arsed with religion or any of the practices, and that’s fair enough.
But to me it’s my favourite time of year. It’s tough, but I love it so much. #RamadanKareem ❤️
— Nooruddean (@BeardedGenius) May 16, 2018
But it's mainly about not eating, right?
That's a big part of it. But again, it's related to spiritual renewal.
Muslims fast during Ramadan so as to cut out the gluttony and over-indulgence of normal life, express their dedication to their faith through abstinence, and relate to those who are suffering from famine around the world.
It is also a way of remembering God. Whereas you'd normally get distracted by other things in your life, you are in a constant state of hunger and thirst, and therefore constantly aware of why you are fasting.
Whoa there. Hunger and thirst?
Yep. No food or drink.
Not even water?
Nope, not even water.
Don't you die?
No, you muppet. It's only during daylight hours, so no eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset.
Still, it's tough going. 18 hours of daylight isn't it?
Yeah it's a slog, but there are load of caveats. Kids and the elderly aren't expected to fast; you don't have to fast if you're travelling; pregnant women are exempt, as are women during menstruation; and anyone who starts to feel unwell should stop, or at least take a day or two off.
I heard an urban myth that you can't even have sex...
Yeah it's true. But again, only during daylight hours. No nookie til the sun goes down. No smoking either.
Blimey. So what's the hardest aspect of observing Ramadan?
Honestly? It's not the hunger or thirst, it's the tiredness. Stating you can eat before dawn isn't the full story. The morning prayer ends at dawn, and you've got to finish eating before morning prayer. So in reality, it means breakfast before 3.30am.
Also, many Muslims go to the local mosque to partake in special late-night prayers during Ramadan, that finish after midnight. So you can imagine that the lack of sleep that this allows, allied to the fact that you're not eating or drinking is extremely energy-sapping.
Wow. It's a pity Ramadan takes place in May.
Well, it doesn't always. Because Islam works to a lunar calendar rather than our Gregorian one, it's slightly out of sync. So each year, Ramadan is around 11 days earlier than it was the previous year.
Okay, so just to get things straight - this year, the first day of Ramadan is on Thursday May 17, and the last day is on Friday June 15?
Ish. It's always a bit of a pain in the arse explaining this, but basically the nature of the lunar calendar is that each month starts with the sighting of a new moon.
Some countries use astronomical calculations and observatories to identify a new moon, whilst others rely on the naked eye. It means that some Muslims can start/end Ramadan a day or so before or after other Muslims.
Yep. It's doubly annoying if you're Muslim, because a) you can't be certain when to take a day off work for Eid until the night before, and b) sometimes friends and even relatives are doing Eid on different days.
Wait, what's Eid?
Oh sorry, the day after the end of Ramadan is 'Eid al-Fitr', which is a day of celebration. A little bit like Christmas...
Hang on, that's later in the year isn't it?
That's another Eid - Eid al-Adha
So Muslims get TWO CHRISTMASES?!
Yeah! But there's no fasting before the other one. And anyway, it just means booking another day of your annual leave off.
Bet Muslims can't wait for Ramadan to end...
Kind of, but it's weird. During Ramadan, when you're gasping for a drink, you are literally counting down the days for it to be over. But by the end of the month, you get a bit melancholy about it coming to an end.
It's because, despite how tough it is, Ramadan gives you a real sense of purpose and accomplishment, and you feel that you're in it together with millions of people around the world. When it's over, you miss that.
Is there anything I can do to help Muslim mates or work colleagues?
Well, the first thing that people think is they shouldn't eat or drink around Muslims because it feels cruel. That's very kind, but you'll probably find it doesn't really bother most of them. They're surrounded by food and drink throughout the month so it's not really a problem.
What you can do is maybe cut them some slack if they seem a little tired and drained...or even a bit tetchy. Remember that a lot of Muslims are absolutely hooked on caffeine and tobacco, and so to go cold turkey during daylight hours is tough.
Also, if you suspect that Ramadan is really getting to somebody in terms of their health or well-being, please bring it up with them. They probably don't want to admit to themselves that they're struggling, but Ramadan is about spirituality, not about getting ill, so remind them of that fact!
Finally, what does 'Ramadan Mubarak' mean?
It means 'Ramadan blessings' or 'Happy Ramadan'. Similarly, when Ramadan is over and it's time to feast and celebrate on Eid, you can wish your Muslim pals 'Eid Mubarak' - and maybe reward them with a Greggs pasty.