This month is particularly important for around 3 million people in the UK -- it's Ramadan. As one of the five pillars of Islam, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for an entire month, to spiritually reflect and unite with one another in their most holy of months.
Salman Farsi of the East London Mosque tells me it is a time to be “mindful of duties towards God. It is a special time where many Muslims can actually take a step back from daily life and focus on their religion.”
It is believed that the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during this month, and many mosques will hold lengthy readings from the scriptures during the daily evening terawih prayer.
Ramadan is perhaps best known for being the month of fasting, when food and drink is not taken throughout the day. Fasting may also refer to abstaining from sexual relations and perceived bad habits such as smoking and drinking, badmouthing others and engaging in idle chatter. In fact, many Muslims believe that, during Ramadan, time itself is far more precious and should be used productively.
I spoke to Tabish Shah, a boxer from East London, who is observing his fast whilst continuing his training. Ramadan, he tells me, has “motivated me a lot more to push myself beyond limits, to see how hard I can train without food.” He is focused, he adds, on “bettering myself as a person, thinking more about boxing, becoming fitter and healthier -- basically trying to achieve and progress in life. When I'm fasting I become more reflective and self-aware than other months.”
In fact, 2012 is a particularly testing Ramadan for athletes, as the Olympics coincide with the month of fasting for the first time since 1980. Around 3,500 Olympic competitors are Muslim, including British athletes Mohamed Sbihi, the first practicing Muslim rower for Great Britain, and Darren Cheesman, a hockey player. Individuals who decide not to fast during the Games may choose to make up for the missed days at a later date.
Arran Russo-Fulton from North London converted to Islam at the age of 15. He tells me that he believes Ramadan is a time for “self-sacrifice, self-control and spiritual connection.” He states: “When you're fasting, everything becomes more treasured and appreciated. Iftar brings people together, sharing a physically demanding task and maintaining generosity.” Iftar is the breaking of the fast, usually starting with dates and water, and is often shared with friends and family.
Zainab Naqvi, also from London, says she feels iftar “is the Islamic tradition of sharing your food with others. It is a time to share with your family, and people are a lot more generous, as during Ramadan the rewards [for good deeds] are far greater, which is also why people are more charitable.” Salman Farsi agrees that iftar in itself can be a “joyous occasion.” However, Tabish Shah reminded me that it is important not to lose sight of the religious significance of Ramadan by becoming too absorbed in its social elements.
During the first week of Ramadan this year there was a heat wave in London, combined with the lengthening days that come with the height of summer (despite what the gray skies would have us believe). Yet according to Arran Russo-Fulton, “The harder the test, the greater the rewards.” Fasting is obligatory for all able Muslims, and is said to be specifically outlined in the Quran and various hadiths -- acts or statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Those who must travel or are sick are excused from fasting.
For those living in Muslim communities in London, it seems that this month is a good time to meet with others and share a common experience, whilst engaging more with religious teachings. It may be difficult in Britain, a non-Muslim country with many more temptations readily available. Yet many people I spoke to pointed out that this exposure to temptation can actually act to strengthen motivation and resolve. Temptation is greater, but commitment stronger.
Many also recommend that those who are not Muslim participate in the fast, to support friends or just generally be open to learning about the religion.
Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, the exact date of which varies around the world depending on the time the new moon is sighted. It will fall some time at the end of August. It marks the end of Ramadan, and is a day of celebration. Unfortunately, it is not recognized as a public holiday in the UK, which may potentially cause problems with employers. But Eid in London will surely be marked with an array of events.
Whether we subscribe to a religion or not, we do live in an interfaith society, and we thus owe it to each other to understand one another's beliefs and practices. Ramadan is a month of self-reflection and understanding, and surely we can all benefit and learn from that.