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Ramadan: your questions answered

A brief guide 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 sunrise 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 sunrise to sunset each day. That's the challenge.

But doesn't that damange 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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I've started getting "hangover shame" – only for my entire adolescence

My new friend was rich, and I had to do something to impress her. So I told her I had a horse.

You know how, after a big night out, you lose consciousness with deep satisfaction, knowing that this is life and you’re living it? But the next morning, some different you awakes, a trembling shame-gremlin, full of remorse and suffering from flashbacks – crystal-clear replays of the stupid, bolshie things you said the night before?

I’ve started getting those, but ones from my adolescence. Memories I had forgotten drop suddenly into my mind in excruciating detail. I’m suffering with these remembrances of things past not only because I used to be foolish and fanciful but because I used to be a liar – a bad one, an unbelievable one. But no one ever told me, so I thought I was getting away with it.

I relive my memories, powerless as my past self tells a girl at my new secondary school that I have a horse. I wanted to impress Laura Crosshunt. She was the richest person I’d ever met: her house had three bedrooms, her kitchen was so big that it had a table in it and her sister wasn’t a bitch.

“I love horses,” Laura says. “Can I come and meet yours?”

I assure her nonchalantly that of course she could. “Why are you so calm?” I scream silently, 20 years in the future. My past self doesn’t know how this ends up but I do.

I was 13 and loved horses. I was addicted to a series of books about them called Pony Club: I’d read them in the school toilets when no one would talk to me. My other favourite books were Point Horror, ’cos I liked danger, and Forever . . . by Judy Blume (the name Ralph still turns me on).

So, Laura tells her parents that the new girl has a horse and that we are going to ride it at the weekend and they say that they will come with us. I didn’t cancel the trip because although I didn’t have a horse, I really wanted to have one.

I had once met a friendly horse in a field that let me stroke his nose. I walked Laura’s family through Hornchurch Country Park but when we got to the field where the friendly horse lived, it was empty.

“MY HORSE HAS BEEN STOLEN!!!”

I flipped out: Laura’s dad had to carry me back to the car while I demonstrated the acting skills that have landed me bit-parts in over two BBC programmes. When we got to their three-bed mansion, I made some fake phone calls: one to my mum, one to the stables and one to the horse police, reporting the theft.

Because of my reading matter, I knew all the lingo. Thanks to the Pony Club books, I knew the correct terms: bridle, stirrups, legs. Because of Point Horror, I knew my horse was probably murdered by a jealous stagehand who wanted to be in the school play. Thanks to Judy Blume, I knew how to caress a penis. I see my former self, over and over, like a horror movie I can’t switch off. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred