The fasting season: the Ramadan challenge


Ramadhan is now less than a few days away and I can already feel the butterflies in my stomach, the excitement and anticipation that it’s THAT time of the year again. This is of course accompanied by a rising panic when I realise that I am not nearly as prepared as I should be: I haven’t read up on it all again to get myself in the right frame of mind for a month of intense worship, nor have I done the meg-shop in which my trolley groans under the weight of all the ‘essentials’ I hope to have in my cupboards, nor have I stocked up on my favourite Iranian dates, cherry juice, baby chickens and mutton at the halal butchers, nor have I prepared the Ramadhan activities I plan to share with the kids.

I’m useless!

You see, I learnt many years ago that a fulfilling British Ramadhan is made, not born. If you want to get the most out of this sacred month that seems to wave goodbye almost as soon as she has said hello, you need to prepare with almost military precision.

That means getting the practicalities out of the way – food shopping, major house cleaning, major assignments – and clearing the decks for all the good deeds you wish you had been doing throughout the year but never got round to. These typically include praying extra prayers with increased devotion, reciting the Qur’an daily, giving charity, keeping your temper, staying away from regular gossip sessions and basically being the paragon of virtue, sweetness and light for the next twenty nine or thirty days.

A tall order, but do-able as countless Muslim will attest, I’m sure. But anyway, back to practicalities. Obviously, if you are not going to be eating or drinking from before sunrise to sunset, you need to make sure that your apres-fast diet is packed full of the necessary nutrients to keep you going for the rest of the month without keeling over halfway through. For me, this means cramming in your ‘five a day’ right when you break your fast: dates, bananas, oranges, and apples are a favourite in my house. And of course, that first sip of water tastes so sweet after the day’s thirst – you need to drink as much water as possible to replenish lost moisture.

Cooking in Ramadhan can be a challenge. Unless you are super organised, you end up doing it when you are at your hungriest: the last part of the afternoon. Add the smells of good things cooking – nourishing soups, fragrant curries and succulent roast chickens – and the fact that you can’t really taste anything, and you’ve got a foolproof recipe for major tummy rumbles. Maybe that is another reason food tastes so wonderful after you’ve been fasting. And one of the sweetest pleasures of Ramadhan is sharing that food with others, be it as a bring-along dish at the mosque or with guests in the comfort of your home or, even more special, food given to a stranger you may never see again.

But Ramadhan is about much more than food. At it’s most potent and most powerful, it a detox for body and soul. It is chance for Muslims to focus once again on our life’s purpose, to tune into our spirituality, to re-establish our connection with our Creator. I like to write a list of my Ramadhan goals so that I can chart my progress: have I been slipping with my prayers? Have I read as much Qur’an as I intended to? Have I invited that nice sister from the mosque home for iftar? Have I been patient and hugged my kids enough? Without a list and a Ramadhan journal, I often feel I run out of steam and fall behind on my goals – so super-achiever tactics are in order.

However, Ramadhan doesn’t always turn out to be the spiritual fix we long for. The main reason for this is that daily life has a habit of getting in the way. We aren’t able to abstain from the daily grind as we can from food and drink. We can’t even put it on hold somewhat, as they do in the Muslim world where they enjoy reduced working hours, shortened school hours, and national holidays for Eid – and, of course, no-one ever eats in public during daylight hours! In the UK, as in the rest of the non-Muslim world, life does not slow down: you are still expected to keep your deadlines, stay razor-sharp in the boardroom, the school run doesn’t disappear, babies must be fed and changed and sibling skirmishes averted. Being a fasting Muslim on lunchbreak is like being a tree in the eye of the storm: your senses are assaulted from all sides and it’s all you can do to bury your head in your miniature Qur’an and remember the reward promised the fasting person: to enter Paradise from the gate of Ar-Rayyan. And of course the samosas you know are waiting for you at sunset.

But maybe that is part of the challenge of Ramadhan, and of Islam as a whole: holding on to the spiritual while dealing with the dunya, the ‘worldly life’. This challenge may not be as acute in the mountains of Morocco, far from the cut and thrust of modern society with its all-consuming angst, rising fuel costs and congestion charges. And on the occasions when I have had a less than fulfilling month, where I kick myself for losing the flow, for wasting time, for not wringing every ounce of blessing from this special month, I vow that next year I will leave the kids behind and flee to the mountains of Morocco where I can worship my Lord in peace and serenity. But then that wouldn’t be real life, would it?

After all, this is where we live, this is where we fast and this is where we worship, in the middle of the canteen. This is our own special jihad, our own personal struggle. And maybe, just maybe, our holy month of Ramadhan is all the more precious for it…

copyright: Na’ima B. Robert

Na’ima B.Robert is editor of Sister’s Magazine and the author of From my Sister’s Lips
Her latest book is From Somalia with Love

From Times Online
September 2, 2008

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