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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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Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to fight anti-Semitism - now he needs to deal with Jackie Walker

The vice-chair of Jewish Labour and the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn on the party's need to tackle anti-Jewish feeling. 

For all those who have a stake in Labour’s future, the deterioration in the party's support from the Jewish community has been painful to watch.

How did we get to the point where incidents of anti-Jewish hate are being unearthed on a weekly basis? How did we get to the point at which an official rally against anti-Semitism within our own party was necessary?

Far too many individuals have been made to feel unwelcome. When one Jewish member feels hostility towards them for being Jewish, it should be a concern for us all. When the overwhelming majority of a community’s leaders, institutions and membership tell us they collectively feel affronted, deep soul-searching must take place.

In his conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn was passionate on the need to tackle all forms of bigotry. By using his platform to demand that Labour “fights hatred against Jewish people with every breath in our body”, he has set a new standard that all levels of the party must adhere to. He has talked the talk, now he must help Labour walk the walk.

The standard he has set must be applied without fear or favour. It can begin with the vice-chair of Momentum, Jackie Walker.

At conference, she told an event: "In terms of Holocaust day, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holocaust day was open to all people who experienced holocaust?” and stated that "still haven’t heard a definition of anti-Semitism that I can work with". She also questioned why Jewish schools need special security.

It cannot be permissible for Labour members to allege that Holocaust Memorial Day has somehow become the sole preserve of the Jewish community at the expense of others. Similarly, Jeremy must act to distance the party from the slightest hint of complacency over the security of Jewish schools and community institutions.

Individuals such as Walker cannot be allowed to tar Jeremy and our party with a weak attitude towards minority rights. To allow such a situation to pass would be at total odds with the history and purpose of the Labour Party.

At the Jewish Labour Movement’s Rally against anti-semitism, colleagues from across the parliamentary Labour party were unequivocal in their message that things must change for good.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis spoke for many when he said “socialism is the emancipation of all people, or none at all”. He is close to the leadership, so we hope his voice is heard loudly by those with the power to rebuild relations. It was also heartening to hear Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West - formerly suspended comments she admits were anti-Semitic - speak about her experiences. She deserves huge credit for her engagement with the Jewish community over their fears and concerns, and the strength of reconciliation was there for all to see.

Most of all, Jeremy must be true to his words by offering reassurances to Labour stalwarts such as Louise Ellman, who has experienced dreadful episodes of harassment over the past year. For a veteran Labour MP to be targeted for her religion is insufferable and it cannot continue.

Our experiences in our diverse home of Hampstead and Kilburn means we understand the importance of non-Jews taking up the fight against anti-Semitism.

There have been further issues at conference, including heckling and abuse targeted at stalls. These incidents must be dealt with, but conference’s huge show of support for this fight must be acknowledged above all else. It will provide the impetus in the weeks and months ahead.

Ultimately, however, impetus will not be enough.

Jeremy Corbyn, rightly or wrongly, has been accused of dithering on this issue. He must now follow his conference speech with genuine action. Only then will his seriousness in repairing the relationship with the Jewish community become clear. Only then can we begin our road to convincing the public that Labour can once again be a party worthy of Government.

Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. Mike Katz is the national vice-chair of Jewish Labour. 

Jackie Walker responded:

"A number of people made comments in a private training session run by the Jewish Labour Movement. As we all know, training sessions are intended to be safe spaces where ideas and questions can be explored. A film of this session was leaked to the press unethically. I did not raise a question on security in Jewish schools. The trainer raised this issue and I asked for clarification, in particular as all London primary schools, to my knowledge, have security and I did not understand the particular point the trainer was making. Having been a victim of racism I would never play down the very real fears the Jewish community have, especially in light of recent attacks in France. 

"In the session, a number of Jewish people, including me, asked for definitions of anti-semitism. This is a subject of much debate in the Jewish community. I support David Schneider's definition and utterly condemn anti-semitism. 

"I would never play down the significance of the Shoah. Working with many Jewish comrades, I continue to seek to bring greater awareness of other genocides, which are too often forgotten or minimised. If offence has been caused, it is the last thing I would want to do and I apologise."