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Mehdi Hasan: What is Ramadan - and other questions answered

A brief guide to the Islamic season of Ramadan for the curious, the bored, the uninformed and the ignorant.

Some of you may have noticed that it is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. My stomach has. I can hear it groaning as I type this post. I won't be eating anything till 8.38pm.

I've been fasting since I was about 12 or 13, and every year I'm asked the same bunch of questions about Ramadan by well-meaning non-Muslim friends and colleagues. So I thought I'd use this blog post to answer some of these common queries.

Here we go:

What is Ramadan?

It's the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims all over the world spend 30 days observing the fast. Muslims believe it is a blessed month; it is the month in which we believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

So you don't eat for 30 days? Is that physically possible?

Sorry, what? There seems to be some confusion about the timing of the fast. The fast takes place from dawn to sunset each day, for 30 days, that is to say, during daylight hours only. We don't actually fast for 30 whole days in a row - that would be impossible, if not worthy of a permanent place in the Guinness Book of Records.

You can drink water, right?

Nope. No water, no juice, no milk, no liquids whatsoever. In fact, the list of "prohibited" items and activities in Ramadan is fairly comprehensive: no food, no drink, no smoking, no drugs, no sex, no bad language or bad behaviour whatsoever, from dawn to sunset each day. That's the challenge.

But doesn't that damage your health?

Hmm. I haven't noticed my fellow Muslims dropping like flies around me, as we fast together each year. Millions upon millions of Muslims, in fact, have been fasting for centuries without falling sick, toppling over or suffering from premature death. Fasting, contrary to popular opinion, doesn't damage your health. Vulnerable individuals – the sick, the elderly, children, pregnant women – are exempt from the requirement to fast. And then there is the range of academic studies which show several health benefits arising from Ramadan-type fasting, "such as lower LDL cholesterol, loss of excessive fatty tissue or reduced anxiety in the fasting subjects".

So do you end up losing weight at the end of it?

I can't speak for others, but I always end up putting on weight because I eat so much every night, at iftar time, to compensate for not having eaten all day! From my own experience, few Muslims treat Ramadan as a period of dieting, or use the fast to lose weight.

Why is Ramadan in the summer this year? Didn't it used to be in winter?

Since 622AD, and the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam has operated on a lunar calendar, with months beginning when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. As the Islamic lunar calendar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year and contains no leap days, etc, the date of Ramadan moves back through our calendar each year. (For example, a few years ago, Ramadan coincided with our winter; the days were shorter and the fasts were easier!)

What is the point of starving yourself for 30 days?

Ramadan is a deeply spiritual time for Muslims. By fasting, we cut ourselves off from the distractions and temptations of our busy, hectic, materialistic lives and try to gain closeness to God. The Quran describes the main purpose of the fast as being to "attain taqwa", or "God-consciousness". We use the fast to try to purify and cleanse our souls, and to ask forgivness for our sins. We also learn self-restraint and we become much more aware of those less fortunate people around us for whom "fasting" is not a choice, for whom hunger is part of daily life. The fast is an act of worship and a spiritual act; it is also an act of social solidarity.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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In Bangladesh, bat in hand, I list all the things that could go wrong

Not everyone gets to play cricket in Bangladesh but I still managed to notch up more worries than runs.

Back from Bangladesh. I picked up a stomach bug while I was out there, and possibly a heart bug, about which I’d rather not go into any detail at the moment, but both will get better as time passes. Meanwhile, as I lie in my bed of pain (the nasty stuff has stopped but I’m still getting the occasional painful ache in the guts), I have my memories.

I must say it was very odd to be treated like royalty while I was out there. (For those who missed it: I was invited to participate in the Dhaka Literary Festival, and saw no reason to refuse, especially after being bought an exceptionally good dinner by the main organiser.) The democrat in me feels shifty even when I’m addressed as “sir” in shops in the UK, so when, one day, on entering the campus at the Bangla Academy, I was actually saluted by a military policeman, I was somewhat taken aback. I wonder if I will see that look in the soldier’s eyes until my dying day: alert, respectful, possibly a bit unhinged. Anyone saluting me must be a little off their rocker, but then how was he to know what a cock-up of a human being I am?

Still, it was extraordinarily pleasant. The highlight was, of course, the cricket match, in which I was invited to play for a scratch team of five from the Authors’ XI, plus two extra lads from the local college, or perhaps affiliated to the local team, the Khulna Titans, whose boss presented us all with caps. I’m wearing mine even as I write these words. I find it soothing.

At the time, though, I was feeling most unsoothed. I found myself going through a list of worries. I should point out that I often start to worry when I start descending the staircase to my own front door – and I was, at this point, roughly 5,000 miles from my front door.

So here are my top ten worries on the way to, during and after the match. I present them in chronological order of beginning to freak me out.

1) Getting shot by terrorists. (That police escort does make one stand out in a crowd, and this lot didn’t seem to be carrying any guns.)

2) Being bitten by one of the dogs lounging around the side of the pitch and having to make the choice between having a series of terribly painful rabies shots, or having rabies.

3) Being stung by a wasp or something on the field and going into anaphylactic shock.

4) Being hit in the mouth by a bouncer and having to go to a hospital to have my teeth crammed back in somehow.

5) Making a huge mow at a full toss not quite as outside the off stump as I’d suspected it was, and missing and being bowled by it.

6) Dropping a catch . . .

6a) . . . and having the ball slam into my mouth etc (see 4).

7) Getting sunstroke/sunburn.

8) Being bitten by a dragonfly, or a swarm of them, while on the pitch. There were loads of dragonflies, for some reason, but they were rather drab. Maybe they weren’t dragonflies, but they flew in the same manner.

9) Throwing the ball back to the keeper in an unmanly or generally disappointing fashion.

10) Being stuck in traffic on the way back for ever and ever, and so missing the event I was scheduled to chair later in the afternoon.

As it is, only number 5) transpired. And maybe a bit of 9). However, I at least made one rather streaky run and so am now able to make the hilarious joke that I have scored on the subcontinent. I marvelled at the state of the pitch: it looked like very fine-textured, pliable tar, or mud baked halfway to being a brick, but soft enough for the spikes on your boot to make a neat hole. Still, it was loads better than the poor neglected pitches at Dogshit Park in Shepherd’s Bush. And I thought of my father, who would have been strangely proud of me for having played in so far-flung a place, and wished that he was still around so he could hear my news.

And so back to London. I was greeted, as I stepped, in my summer linens, from the Heathrow Express at Paddington to the cab rank (I was too tired and sick for public transport), by a blast of chill rain, and shivered as I turned on the cab’s heater. Once again I seem to have fallen in love with a place new to me, and I begin to get indignant at the fact that the weather gets miserable in the UK.

There might be millions of poor people in Bangladesh, but not a single one of them is living in fear that one night they might freeze to death while sleeping out of doors. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage