Islam encourages a suite of practices that demonstrate devotion. Fasting for the month of Ramadan is one of them. In 2018, Ramadan lasts from mid-May to mid-June. Observant Muslims will wake early (around 2.30am in Britain) to have a pre-dawn meal and to state their intention to fast for the day. They will break their fast with a meal, iftar, shortly after 9pm (in Britain – times vary according to the length of the day in different parts of the world). In between, fasting involves avoidance of all food and drink. This is additional to the everyday expectation that Muslims will never consume alcohol, pork and some other things. If all this abstention sounds like a burden and a cause of misery, a conversation with Muslims or even a quick internet search may be enlightening. While I have emphasised avoidance and restraint, most Muslim presentations of Ramadan could give you the opposite view. They often emphasise the feast which ends fasting every day. Words like “sumptuous banquet” and “delightful of “favourite foods” indicate the flavour of this religious festival. It is not a retreat from or rejection of the world but a matter of seeking balance. An annual month-long discipline of restraint provides significant opportunities for reflecting on what is most important. Hence, Muslims are not only expected to fast but also to commit charitable acts. For example, the meal with which the fast ends, Iftar, is not only about enjoying what each individual prefers but also encourages sharing with others. One Muslim friend cited a tradition in which God describes those who are quickest to break the fast as the “dearest of my servants”. This sounds to me like a deity who wants people to celebrate and enjoy the world as an integral part of their devotion and piety.
At the Open University, the Religious Studies department is currently preparing a new course called “Exploring religion: Places, Practices, Texts and Experiences”. In one part of this course we ask students to study a film of a group of Muslim friends discussing Ramadan as they eat together. A significant focus of their conversation is the foods that they associate with Ramadan from their upbringing in different countries (Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq and India) and from their adaptation to living, working and studying in Britain. In various ways, they make the point that they do not experience Ramadan as a burden but as an integral part of their commitment to living better lives. That seems an ambition to which no-one could object.
We wish our Muslim colleagues, students and friends a happy Ramadan!