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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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Donald Trump's rise is a reaction to Obama's two terms as president

This week, from Barack Obama’s legacy to memories of Angela Carter.

My children can’t believe that I grew up in a racially segregated Alabama, or that I reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (for this magazine). One of their earliest memories is of helping a family friend sell coffee and hot chocolate in sub-zero temperatures to the crowds celebrating the inauguration of Bar­ack Obama in Washington in January 2009.

My past is ancient history to them. I strongly recommend that anybody who still feels that way watches In the Good Ol’ Days, the YouTube trailer for a documentary called 13th by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. It splices physical abuse of black people at Donald Trump’s rallies (and his taunts about how they would have been “carried out on a stretcher” in the past) with documentary footage from the 1960s. It’s chilling.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I went back to my old school in Montgomery to see how attitudes had changed. It was no longer segregated, of course, but it was still predominantly white. A former classmate told me that when he was five, the family handyman got chucked over a bridge and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. We never heard these stories in school. Then I met the progressive headmaster, who assured me that everything was non-discriminatory now. But, as I left, I was escorted to my car by the school bursar, who told me he didn’t trust Obama because he was a “Muslim”. The way he said it made it sound like the N-word to me.


Going South

There has been surprisingly little discussion about the extent to which the rise of Trump has been specifically a reaction to Obama’s two-term presidency. Yes, we have heard how Obama’s legitimacy has been questioned by the “birther” movement and we have listened to Trump crow about forcing the first African-American president to produce his papers (or rather his birth certificate). But when even a former grand wizard of the KKK – an absurd title – says that Trump talks “a lot more radically” than he does, it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension to this election.

The two big states that Trump still hopes to swing his way are Pennsylvania – memorably described by the Clinton adviser James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “Alabama in between” – and Ohio, where my mother was born. She is from the northern Democratic stronghold of Cleveland; Cincinnati, she used to sniff, was the South. She didn’t mean geographically.


Bill and Hill

There are many good reasons to be wary of Trump but I have never felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton. The governor of Alabama in my day was Lurleen Wallace, who was in office because her notoriously racist husband was ineligible to run for a consecutive term. She didn’t even bother to disguise that she was a proxy candidate and ran as Mrs George C Wallace, while he became known as “the first gentleman of Alabama”.

Admittedly, Hillary Clinton is far more her own woman than Lurleen ever was but Bill Clinton, remember, is a former Southern governor, of Arkansas. Bill and Hill had the idea long ago of a “twofer” run at the White House – and they’ll definitely have known about the Wallaces’ example. Alas, it’s too late to dwell on how much better it would be if the first female president of the United States hadn’t already been its first lady and Bill Clinton hadn’t set his sights on returning as first gentleman. But it’s Trump v Clinton and, thus, no contest.


Granny knew best

Enough about the US elections, hard though it is to tear our eyes away from the car crash. Last week, I went to the launch party at Daunt Books of Edmund Gordon’s wonderful biography of Angela Carter, a literary heroine of mine. I was a young publicist at Virago in the late 1980s when I visited Carter at home in Clapham, south London, where she was living with her much younger husband, Mark, a potter, and their little boy. She looked like a magnificently eccentric granny to me, with her shock of thick, wavy, grey hair. I thought that she was ancient because she’d had a baby at 42 but, as ever, she was just ahead of her time.


Partial eclipse

I’d no idea until I read The Invention of Angela Carter just how many Virago novelists she had nurtured. Pat Barker, for instance, the author of the Regeneration trilogy about the First World War, was one of her protégées. The photographs, though, show Carter with the young men who eventually eclipsed her: Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. She taught Ishiguro creative writing at the University of East Anglia and introduced him to
her agent, Deborah Rogers. He told me at the party that there were only half a dozen students on the course with him and the university couldn’t be bothered to find enough people to fill the places the following year. Yet it has since become the stuff of legend.


Lost treasure

Carmen Callil, Carter’s great friend and the founder of Virago, was also at the party. She told me that her joy in publishing faded when Carter was offered only £60,000 for her last novel before she died of lung cancer in 1992. By then, the men – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, et al – were getting far bigger advances of several hundred thousand pounds, even though she was every bit as good as them (or better).

At the end of her life, her thoughts were on money and how her “two boys” – her husband and son – would manage without her. She told her literary executor, Susannah Clapp, to give permission to everything and anyone who wanted to use her work for commercial purposes, however naff or vulgar. Her last book, by the way, was to have been a fictional life of Adèle Varens, the vivacious young ward of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. How I would have loved to read it.

Sarah Baxter is a former political editor of the New Statesman and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood