Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community. It is part of one of the five pillars of Islam:
- Shahada (Profession of faith)
- Salat (Prayer)
- Zakat (Alms giving)
- Sawm (Fasting)
- Hajj (Pilgrimage)
What does Ramadan mean to you?
Read the story of our colleague Runa Begum
Everyone who knows me knows that for 11 months of the year my life revolves around food, what to eat for breakfast, for lunch (usually at about 10.30 after I’ve finished breakfast), for afternoon tea (sometimes you need a pick me up at about 3.30) and for dinner. It becomes most clear during Ramadan that most of my social interactions revolve around food (see above) and it’s not just me who loses weight during Ramadan but also my friends and co-workers.
What does Ramadan mean for me?
You would think that given my love of a food that I would struggle with Ramadan but somehow when you’re fasting you discover a willpower that you never knew you had and that’s because Ramadan isn’t just about not eating for a month. It is also about spiritual discipline, about cleansing your mind and soul as well as your body, about developing empathy for fellow human beings and for those who are less fortunate.
Not being able to eat forces you to work on your will power and patience, because that last hour before you break your fast, the one after you’ve made all the food ready for iftar is the longest of the day. Even though you’ve managed to fast 17 hours with no problems, suddenly that last 60 minutes just stretches for an eternity, it’s not just me, ask the other Muslims you know.
Fasting is a bit of a paradox; on the one hand it is a very personal thing, everyone’s experience of Ramadan is different depending on who they are, their lifestyle, how they practice Islam and even where they live. But on the flip side it is a very communal thing, you eat and pray with family and friends, you are also part of a wider community both locally and globally, a community of a billion plus people who are all going through the same thing you are.
So why fast?
As I said above fasting is about purifying the mind, body and soul. Muslims try to be on their best behaviour and curb negative thoughts and emotions and cut back on things like swearing, complaining and gossiping during the month. I really try to cut back on swearing (honestly I do), I even come up with a swear jar which I donate to charity but it’s usually full after a few days as I am still adjusting. But at least the charity made lots of money…
The first few days are tough because you’re usually adjusting to the new routine; you’re adapting to disturbed sleep, trying to find a rhythm whilst going through withdrawal symptoms (pick your poison – mine are sugar and caffeine) and all the while continuing work and life as if nothing has changed. Muslims are not supposed to avoid work or school or any other normal duties during the day just because we are fasting, however, in many Muslim countries businesses and schools may reduce their hours during the day or close entirely. For the most part, Muslims go about their daily business as we normally would.
However, after a few days into Ramadan, the body begins to adjust to its new eating and drinking pattern as higher levels of endorphins appear in the blood, suddenly you feel more alert and you tap into a calmness that is AWOL the rest of the year giving an overall feeling of better mental health. Suddenly things that would normally annoy you, don't annoy you as much anymore.
I also find Ramadan gives you perspective as it reminds us of the less fortunate in the world. When you’re fasting, you see what it feels like to be hungry, tired, thirsty, to have no energy but it is only temporary and you know that come some sundown you will be able to eat again but for some people this is their everyday reality. They go into work tired and hungry day after day and so it teaches you compassion for the poor and needy and it encourages us to give to others in need (see pillar three of Islam – Zakat – giving to charity).
One of the other things that Ramadan taught me was empathy. During Ramadan you have to wake up before sunrise to eat and pray and then go back to sleep for a few hours before waking up to go to work and I find it to be the toughest part of Ramadan. I can get used to almost everything else but this I find really hard; the lack of sleep leaves you hazy sometimes and really does impact your concentration more than not eating. But there are people who go through this every day, parents and carers who have to look after their ward all hours of the day and night and then still come into work and deliver. I don’t know how they do it day after day.
For many, Ramadan also brings us closer to God. It reminds you of your place in the world, your humanity and your dependence on God for sustenance and it teaches you gratitude.
But that makes it all sound super serious and boring, it's not. It's a time of celebration and joy to be spent with loved ones. At the end of Ramadan there is a three day celebration called Eid al-Fitr, or "the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast"; it's kind of like the Muslim version of Christmas where everyone comes together with family and friends to eat, exchange presents etc.
Despite the difficulties of fasting for a whole month, most Muslims (me included) actually look forward to Ramadan and are a little sad when it's over. The first ten days feel really slow but once you get into a rhythm, the rest of the month just flies by and there is something really special about knowing that millions of your fellow Muslims around the world are experiencing the same hunger pangs, dry mouth and withdrawal symptoms that you are, and that we're all in it together.
So much of Ramadan is about community, praying together, eating together and giving back to the community together that I do wonder how COVID-19 lockdown will impact Ramadan this year. The biggest change will be not being able to go to the mosque for the daily night prayers or the Eid prayer on the first day of Eid but no doubt we will adapt and carry on and there’s always Eid al-Adha (that’s right we have two Eids!).
Ramadhan 2020: A very special one
It has been at least one month since social restrictions were being imposed in Indonesia. I have just managed to adjust to a new normal to work from home effectively (together with my small family – I live with my husband and our 3-year old son). Now, the month of Ramadhan is just started, and there are few new things that I have to adjust.
Ramadhan is technically the same. We still hold hunger and thirst from dawn to dusk. But the tradition in 2020 is very different from previous years. The existence of social restrictions forbade us to carry out our special Ramadhan tradition.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam that is followed by every Moslem (the other four pillars are Shahadah, Salat, Zakat and Hajj). We were instructed through the Qur'an and hadith to fast one month in the 9th month of the Islamic calendar (based on the cycle of moon). We are abstaining from food and drink during daylight, we also are encouraged to recite the verses of the Qur'an during the Tarawih, a special nightly prayers during Ramadhan Month. This way, we are expected to reflect and introspect our faith.
Moslems are everywhere in the world, I believe every country has their own unique Ramadhan tradition. As a country with a majority of Moslems, Ramadhan in Indonesia has a very pronounce communal tradition. Some are doing Sahoor (predawn meal) on the road. Breaking fast became a moment of celebration for our daily victory (the success of fasting), where we usually spend time together with family and friends. Not only that, the streets are usually filled with street vendors selling typical Ramadhan snacks just before breaking fast time. Moreover, after breaking fast, we do Tarawih (the night prayer) together at the mosque.
This pandemic, which has been started since the end of 2019, made us consciously anticipate Ramadhan differently. We are aware that we must be at home to fight this pandemic together. But we still can continue to keep connected with family and friends using various technologies to make us feel close. We can do a virtual gathering in the breaking fast time.
A very different thing is, I as a young mother, found myself spending more time in the kitchen preparing food. From doing meal-prep so that the Sahoor (predawn meal) feels easier, to trying family recipes. Working from home makes me avoid commuting, so I have enough time to prepare food my own for my small family at home. If normally my very big family gathered and brought their favorite dishes to eat together, I now collect recipes from my Aunties (who I have more than a dozen) to learn how to make them myself. This certainly makes the frequency of me contacting my aunts higher than in previous times. Not to mention I have more than enough recipes to try for the whole month.
Ramadhan during Pandemic, is different, but I refuse to consider it lacking. Ramadhan 2020 would still feel special. Because there are many good things we can get from this time. In this holy month of Ramadhan, I pray that the pandemic ends soon and we can all meet again with gratitude.
Distribution - Indonesia
Mohammad Hasif story
Malaysians often pride ourselves as living in one of the main culinary capitals of Asia where a melting pot of cultures and traditions have resulted in a gastronomic representation of almost every major Asian staple tuned to the Malaysian taste buds. There is no better month in the year where this is displayed than Ramadhan, the holy fasting month for Muslims who make up roughly 62% of the population. Ironically for a month where Muslims symbolise our faith by restraining from eating and drinking from dusk to dawn, food is on the main agenda and often, one would be able to find dishes and desserts that is only available during Ramadhan which is why in Malaysia, even non-Muslim look forward longingly to this special month.
Of course, Ramadhan isn’t merely about food as it brings about significant changes to the way we live our lives, the way we work and the way we worship. At ASI Kuala Lumpur, the start of Ramadhan often signals a subtle change in working hours as Muslim staff adopt a more flexible working arrangement where we begin work earlier and leave for home earlier in order to prepare for the break of fast and prayers (and of course to avoid the dreaded traffic jams Kuala Lumpur is so well known for). There is also the annual office “Iftar” or breaking of fast where both Muslim and Non-Muslim colleagues gather together along with our families to breakfast together, a simple feat for a fairly small office of 20 people but also important to strengthen ties beyond the office setting as we feast on a bevy of special Ramadhan delicacies such as roast lamb, mutton biriyani and the quintessential Malaysian satay.
This year’s Ramadhan is very likely to stand out as one of the more memorable ones, at least in my lifetime. The pandemic that has spread globally has resulted in the Malaysian government instituting a Movement Control Order (MCO) where individuals are limited to where and how far they can travel and essentially encouraged to stay at home. The usual traditions of Ramadhan such as Taraweeh prayers at the mosque and Ramadhan bazaars that stretch for miles are non-existent this year and Muslims have been encouraged to undertake their fast and prayers within the confines and safety of their home. However, instead of wallowing in self-pity and true to the “Malaysia Boleh” (a.k.a Malaysia Can-do) spirit, Malaysians have found the silver-lining in observing Ramadhan under lockdown. For one, we are able to spend more quality time with our families and less time grovelling through traffic to get home before Iftar. The rise of food delivery apps has also given birth to “e-Ramadhan bazaars”, an online version of the popular annual bazaars but instead of battling through human traffic at the traditional bazaars, we now get to order our favourite delicacies from the comfort of our homes.
There’s no denying that Ramadhan in Kuala Lumpur this year will feel unfamiliar to many and the subsequent Eid celebrations (termed Hari Raya Aidilfitiri here) will very likely be a low key affair with mosques remaining to be closed and the annual “balik kampung” tradition where city dwellers make their way back to their respective hometowns likely to be discouraged. However, this should also be seen as an opportunity to improve the spiritual aspects of Ramadhan where one can self-reflect without the distractions that are often present. For many of us here in Kuala Lumpur, this will be a Ramadhan to remember but also hopefully we would be able to make the most out of it.