Mon, Aug 08, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Nothing under the sun

One week into Ramadan, it’s a good time to lay to rest some of the common myths about one of the five pillars of Islam

By Mehdi Hasan  /  The Guardian, London

A girl looks through a metal partition at a mosque inside the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore after prayers on Friday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

I crawled out of bed on Thursday at 2:45am, exhausted and bleary-eyed. I wolfed down two eggs, two slices of toast, a croissant, half a banana and several glasses of water. Then I went back to bed.

I performed a similar routine at a similar time on Wednesday, and the day before that, too. Awoke, ate and slept again. Have I gone mad, I hear you ask? Why do I seem to be having pregnancy-style, middle-of-the-night cravings for fried breakfasts and lots of liquid?

I don’t. There’s a more prosaic explanation: It is Ramadan and I’m was on my third day of fasting. Luckily for me, and for the 1.6 billion other Muslims across the world, there were just 27 more days to go. (Is that my stomach I hear groaning?)

Fasting, or sawm, in Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam — the others being the shahadah (declaration of faith), salat (the five daily prayers), zakat (almsgiving) and the hajj (pilgrimage). The fast is considered to be a wajib or obligatory act (though there are exemptions that I’ll come to in a moment).

Muslims fast for 30 days in Ramadan. Just to be clear: we fast from sunrise (hence the 2:45am wakeup) to sunset (around 9pm at the moment) each day. We don’t fast for 30 days as a whole. That, of course, would be impossible. Not to mention suicidal.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is regarded by Muslims as one of the most holy months: We believe that it was during Ramadan that the Koran was first revealed to prophet Mohammed by the angel Gabriel.

The Islamic calendar has been lunar since its inception in 622 AD, with each month beginning with the sighting of a new moon. As the lunar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year, the start date for Ramadan moves back through the Western calendar each year. A few years ago, Ramadan coincided with our winter, when the days were shorter and cooler; this year, to much moaning and griping from British Muslims (yes, me included), it’s fallen in the summer, with much longer and hotter days. That means the fasting isn’t easy. Imagine, for instance, going on the London underground in the sweltering August heat without being able to take a bottle of water with you.

In fact, you’re not allowed any liquids: no water, no juice, no milk. The list of “banned” items and activities in Ramadan is extensive: no cigarettes, drugs, sex, bad language or bad behavior, from sunrise to sunset. That, dear readers, is the challenge. (In case you’re wondering, chewing gum isn’t allowed either.)

“Has it begun?” my colleagues asked me earlier this week, their eyes expressing a mixture of sympathy, pity and — just perhaps — awe. Most (well-meaning) non-Muslims view Ramadan as deeply oppressive. Isn’t it dangerous, I’m often asked? Doesn’t it damage your health? Weaken you?

The short answer is No. Millions (billions?) of Muslims have been fasting for centuries, without suffering any Ramadan-specific illnesses or diseases. Vulnerable groups — the sick, the elderly, children, pregnant women, travelers — are exempt. And, in recent years, a number of academic studies have demonstrated the health benefits of fasting. According to a paper published in April by the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Utah, it can lower the risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes, and keep blood cholesterol levels in check. The researchers found fasting could also reduce other cardiac risk factors such as excess weight, blood sugar levels and triglycerides.

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