As we enter the last week of Ramadan, Lib Dem member Sadia Mirza explains why the holy month is not just about fasting, and what it means to her as a Muslim.
While many of us are looking forward to the easing of lockdown and attempting to bask in the elusive spring sun, many Muslims across the world are nearing the end of observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan: a month where Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn till dusk. Fasting is perhaps the most noticeable aspect of this holy month. It’s the bit that could and often does affect social interaction and the daily routine of a Muslim, though Muslims are expected to continue with their normal chores during this month, within reason. Yet fasting is only one of the features of Ramadan.
Above all, Ramadan is about the Quran – the holy scripture that Muslims follow and believe to be the word of God. It’s the month when the holy book was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammed through Angel Jibril (Gabriel). Muslims therefore seek to bring themselves closer to the Quran during this month, through reading it, memorising portions of it and reflecting on its meaning.
From the night the new moon is sighted, which confirms the start of Ramadan, the Quran is honoured through daily taraweeh prayers at mosques. These are optional night prayers through which the entire Quran is recited over the course of the month. These prayers are why you may spot crowds of Muslims, freshly energised by having broken their fast (i.e. eaten!), eagerly entering mosques as night sets in.
Why the need to fast? Ramadan is intended to remind us of those who are less fortunate – the poor and the needy. While we can never truly experience the same level of hunger, fasting brings us a little closer to that feeling. It builds empathy and gratitude for the food and drink that many of us take for granted. It also encourages giving to the poor and charity donations tend to skyrocket during this period. In 2016 the Charity Commission reported that British Muslims gave approximately £100 million in donations during Ramadan alone.
Fasting, from an Islamic perspective, is not just confined to the physical. There is also the fasting of the eyes, ears and tongue. This may sound strange, but put simply, it means refraining from obscenity, gossiping and unnecessary arguments and turning one’s gaze away from the forbidden. These habits are all discouraged outside of Ramadan too but in Ramadan they carry an extra weight.
Ramadan is therefore also about ‘spiritual’ cleansing – an opportunity for Muslims to reflect deeply and reset their mind, body and soul by striving to bring themselves closer to all the teachings of their faith, including those that involve interaction with others. Some use the time to cleanse their hearts of ill-feeling such as grudges or envy, while others give up bad habits or bring in new positive habits.
For me, Ramadan evokes a number of meanings, many of which are expressed above, but it’s also the memories and familiar routine that make it that extra bit special. The early morning alarm that wakes me for my pre-dawn meal. The food smells too – at what other time of the year would one eat freshly cooked paratha or chappati with scrambled egg or leftover curry (if you’re from a Pakistani household like mine that is!) at 3, 4 or 5 am? The hasty eating of this unusually early breakfast in the dark hours, while most of the outside world sleeps. The rush to get that one final sip of water into our systems before the call to prayer, indicating the start of the fast. The sound of religious shows on the radio and television. Or, in pre-pandemic days, the invitations to iftaars, the breaking of the fast with friends, families or community groups. Or the rush to the mosques, to catch the taraweeh prayers.
The layers of meanings and actions attached to Ramadan create a tangible feeling in the air throughout the month, with Muslims consciously living and breathing it, eager to not let a single moment pass wastefully. Ramadan is like a friend – one that comforts us, inspires inner growth and gets us to do good. And as the month draws to an end, Muslims seek to continue, rebooted, striving to be the best version of themselves post-Ramadan.