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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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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