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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 didn't expect to have to choose between a boyfriend and Judi Dench - but it happened

He told me I'd spoiled the cruise by not paying him enough attention. But what was I to do when Dame Judi Dench asked for a chat?

This happened around 20 years ago, in the days when a new boyfriend was staying at my house. One quite memorable mid-morning, the phone rang while we were in bed and it was the editor of the Times; then it rang again (when we were still in bed) and it was Dame Judi Dench. Yes, Judi Dench.

I was as surprised as anyone would be. True, I had recently written a radio monologue for her (about a wistful limpet stuck on a rock), but I hadn’t attended the recording, so I had never met her, or expected ever to hear her say, “Hello, is that Lynne Truss?” in that fabulous Dame Judi voice that only she possesses.

She said that she and her husband, Michael, were often invited to perform public readings; could I help by writing something? Stunned, I said that I would love to. She gave me her number. I hung up.

I can’t remember why I didn’t jump straight out of bed to start work on the Dame Judi project. But what I do remember is that when the phone rang yet again, we ignored it, on the grounds that, post-Judi, it could only be a disappointment.

A few months later, I was invited on a winter cruise, sailing from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Singapore. I took the boyfriend. It was only when we were changing planes at 3am that I spotted, among the other dog-tired passengers, Dame Judi with a group of friends.

Nervously, I went and said hello, what a coincidence. She said that we must talk. Then the holiday began and the boyfriend and I had a wonderful time. We met nice people and enjoyed the ship, although we consistently failed to identify our allotted muster station.

At the end of ten days, we were sitting on deck at Singapore, when I said, “Well, wasn’t that lovely?”

The boyfriend took me aback by saying, “Actually, glad you asked. No, it wasn’t.” I had spoiled the whole experience, he said, by continually talking to other people when I should have been talking to him.

I was very upset. All this time, he’d been unhappy? Casting my mind back, I realised it was true that I had made friends on board (and he hadn’t); also, at dinner, I had openly talked to the person sitting beside me, because I thought you were supposed to.

And now I stood accused of cruise-ruining! “I’ll get us some tea,” I said. “Oh, yes?” he fumed. “You’ll be gone for an hour, as usual.” And I said “No, I won’t. I promise.”

And so I went inside, wiping away my tears, and someone started chatting to me and I squeaked, “Can’t stop.” After that, I just slalomed through the throng with my head down.

Then, as I re-emerged into the sunlight with a prompt, relationship-saving cup and saucer in each hand, there was Judi Dench, and she said, “Shall we have our little chat now?” 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad