Purpose of Ramadan
For many Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan is one of the most anticipated and exciting times of the year. Not only is it a time of reflection and gratitude for all of the blessings we have been given, but it also serves as a mechanism for Muslims to increase their closeness to God through various acts of worship and remembrance.
Although many people associate Ramadan with fasting from sunrise until sunset, this is only one of many facets to the holy month; to name a few more, observers will also strive to strengthen their connection with God through devotional acts of worship such as congregational night prayers known as Taraweeh, giving in charity to the less fortunate amongst us (fun fact – back in 2016 over £100 million was donated to different charities by British Muslims equating to £38 a second!), and strengthening ties with family members and the wider community mainly through Iftar - the breaking of the fast.
Common Myths and Misconceptions
Misconception #1 - “Everyone is obligated to fast no matter what!” Reality: This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, many individuals are exempt from fasting, for instance, children, the sick, the elderly, pregnant woman and even some travellers. Indeed “God does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.” (Quran 2:286).
If a person is unable to keep a fast for any reason, then they will be required to make that fast up at a later date. However, in the extreme circumstance that a person (usually the sick or the elderly) is not able to fast and not able to make up these fasts then they are able to give Fidya. Fidya is the religious donation of money or food to help those in need.
Misconception #2 - “At least you can still drink water, right?” Reality: No, not even water. For those that do not fall under the exempt categories, fasting is obligatory during this month which includes abstaining from food and drink amongst other things. Think about it - how many times have we taken the gift of water for granted? Fasting during Ramadan will help us to remember and appreciate the many blessings we take for granted on a daily basis, such as food and water.
Misconception #3 - “I forgot that I was fasting and accidentally ate something- my fast has been invalidated.” Reality: If you unintentionally consume food or drink then your fast is still valid, you should carry on until the time arrives for you to break your fast.
Benefits of Ramadan - Charity
The holy month of Ramadan allows Muslims to cleanse and purify their souls and become closer to God and charity is one way in which this is achieved. Acts of charity, known as ‘Zakat,’ are obligatory upon Muslims who are able to do so. One of the aims of fasting is to be able to empathise with the less fortunate and as a result, reminds Muslims to be more generous and to increase their charitable activities. It is a well known fact that in Islam, charity benefits the giver just as much as it does the receiver, if not more. This is because, by sacrificing one’s wealth and giving it in charity, the individual is guaranteeing protection for themselves from tragedy and misfortune as The Prophet (pbuh) has even said: “Give charity without delay, for it stands in the way of calamity.” Of course, this does not mean that charity is just about donating money - it’s about helping those in need in any way that is possible, The Prophet (pbuh) said:
“Save yourself even with half a date (to be given in charity); and if you do not find a half date, then with a good pleasant word”. Also, even though Islam encourages Muslims to donate as often as possible, the reward for giving is multiplied during Ramadan.
The benefits of fasting:
Whilst we have explored how there is more to Ramadan than fasting, when you think about Ramadan the first thing that comes to mind will be fasting – as fasting or Saum is one of the five pillars of Islam. A common misconception is that when fasting, Muslims only abstain from food and drink, and this is the case. However, we do also look to stay away from certain acts such as smoking, sexual activities and the explosion of fluids from the body (i.e. cupping, intentionally vomiting) which are deemed to render the fast invalid. For many Muslims in the UK the past few years have brought 14+ hour fasts, which at times can be very demanding given that most must continue with daily life, the act of fasting can be very beneficial for one’s self.
An obvious benefit from fasting is the fact it can aid weight loss and in the short run boost a person’s metabolism. This is because theoretically, abstaining from all foods and beverages should decrease your overall caloric intake (even though most Muslims - me included - are guilty of gorging themselves at iftar… oops) and so as you go about your day you allow the body to use its stored energy.
Not only can fasting aid weight loss but research has found that it can potentially boost brain function and thus help prevent neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Dementia. During fasting it seems that there is regulation of certain growth factors, which allows for the increase in the generation of nerve cells to help enhance cognitive function. Given that Dementia and Alzheimer’s are conditions characterised by memory loss and a decline in cognitive functioning.
In this day and age we know that mental health is an issue that many suffer from with NHS England stating that 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children suffer from a mental illness. Fasting has been found to help combat depression and anxiety, in a study conducted in 2010 in Tehran of nurses fasting during Ramadan, there was a significant reduction in depression following the fasting period compared to before. This can be attributed to the fact that as a result of fasting, like common antidepressant medications the body sees an increase in the production of a protein which aids cognitive functions.
These are a few of the many benefits which can stem from a person abstaining from food and drink for a sustained period, however Muslims do not fast just so that they can gain the benefits explained. Ultimately the goal of a fasting for Muslims should be to become a more caring person in relation to one’s responsibilities to one’s self, God and all other creation, this ultimately links back to the idea of charity.To understand fully what it means to a Muslims to fast during Ramadan you can look to a story of man who once came to the Prophet for guidance. The man said ‘Order me to do a deed that will allow me to enter Paradise.' The Prophet replied: 'Stick to fasting, as there is no equivalent to it.' Then the man came to him again and he said: 'Stick to fasting’
Benefits of Ramadan - Taraweeh
Taraweeh is the additional prayer performed every night of Ramadan after the final mandatory prayer of the day, for the main purpose of gaining spiritual reward from God. However, since the actual act of praying in Islam is considered to be a ‘gentle exercise’ by some, there are surprisingly a number of medical benefits to it. One way in which the motions of prayer are said to be advantageous to one's health is in the repeated up and down movements that improve joint flexibility, muscle strength and tendon power. The act of praying is also extremely helpful for the elderly in terms of increasing their endurance and stamina and strengthening their muscles.
Food in Ramadan + Recipe:
It may feel like a huge emphasis is placed on food-or lack thereof- so it is important to remember Ramadan is a time of spiritual growth while practising self-control, charity, and generosity. Nevertheless, Muslims across the globe share similar nostalgic memories of previous Ramadans; the smell of homemade foods, the hubbub of a lively household and the moment of peace when the sky tinges pink and the sun begins to set. There are various foods which are considered ‘Sunnah’, meaning ‘the way of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)’. The simple act of breaking a fast by eating a sweet date is a tradition passed on from the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) himself as he said: “If you have a date, break your fast with it, if you don’t have it, break the fast with water as it is purifying.” Sunnah foods also include honey, lemon, pomegranates, olives, oats and figs. The Prophet mentions: “Honey is a remedy for every illness and the Quran is a remedy for all illness of the mind, therefore I recommend to you both remedies, the Quran and honey.” Pomegranates are mentioned in the Quran 3 times as one of the fruits of Paradise. Ramadan is a time of self-contemplation so don’t haste in breaking your fast and try to incorporate some Sunnah foods into your diet.
Here is a quick recipe for Lemon and Honey Drizzle cake.
225g self-raising flour
3 beaten eggs
3 tbsp honey
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a tin with baking paper.
2. In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar together.
3. Then, add the eggs slowly and mix.
4. Sift the flour in and fold.
5. Add the zest of the lemon and juice of half the lemon, being careful not to get any seeds into the mixture.
6. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 40 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean when inserted.
7. Meanwhile, prepare the drizzle by heating the remaining half of the lemon juice and honey in a small pan.
8. Take the cake out of the tin once cooled and pierce the top of the cake. Pour the drizzle on top and garnish with lemon zest.
Celebrating Ramadan - Eid
Muslims observe two annual celebrations, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, and the former marks the end of Ramadan. It translates to ‘festival of breaking the fast’ and happens immediately after the blessed month finishes and usually lasts for up to three days. The celebration is distinguished by the performance of a communal prayer at daybreak on its first day and is then typically followed by day-time feasts and family gatherings. Customarily, family and friends dress up in new clothes purchased specifically for this occasion and visit each other’s houses bearing gifts. Many families will also visit the poor and less fortunate in their own communities to ensure that they have enough food and water to celebrate themselves.