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This week millions of Muslims around the world started fasting to observe the holy month of Ramadan.

The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan commemorates the first verses of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, being revealed to the Prophet Mohammed more than 1,400 years ago.

During these weeks, Muslims are expected to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours if they are healthy and able to do so.

But what exactly does it involve? Can you drink water? Will you offend someone who’s fasting if you eat or drink in front them?

To answer all these questions and more our Senior Account Manager Salma Nakhuda, who is observing the month, is here to help.

Let me get this straight, you can’t eat AT ALL?

Nope, not a crumb. Muslims fast from Fajar, just before sunrise, to the sunset prayer of Maghrib.

Muslims will wake up before the sun rises to eat a pre-dawn meal called suhoor or sehri. Then no eating or drinking until sunset, when it’s time for iftar, the meal which breaks the fast.

But wait. What about water?

Hah. No, not even water! This is quite possibly the question Muslims get asked the most (check out the memes and #NotEvenWater). But don’t worry – we make sure that in the hours we can eat and drink, we are well hydrated!

So, it’s all about not eating and drinking then?

Well, it’s a bit more than that. Along with giving up food and water, Muslims also abstain from sexual relations and smoking.

So sure, it is about self-restraint but along with that Muslims will participate in acts of worship such as reading the Quran and work on strengthening their relationship with God.

Also, importantly it’s about trying to be a better human all-round by engaging in more charitable work and striving to improve your character.

The idea being that the positive changes will carry on after the month finishes. Ramadan really does make you thankful and appreciative for what you do have.

Does everyone have to observe it?

Fasting is one of the fundamental five pillars of Islam, along with daily prayers, zakat or charity, the declaration of faith and performing the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

All Muslims who are healthy and well are expected to fast. But children and those who are elderly, pregnant, or menstruating, as well as people who are travelling are exempt.

A lot of children want to fast to feel part of the month – sometimes parents let the younger ones do “half-fasts” so they don’t feel like they’re missing out!

Whilst it is compulsory for most, you find people really do want to fast. There is something very special about being part of a huge worldwide community that you know is experiencing the month along with you.

I’m sure Ramadan was at a different time last year, why does it change?

The moon! Yes, you heard that right. The moon. Islam follows the lunar calendar which is 10/11 days shorter than the modern-day calendar.

The month begins when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. Muslim countries have dedicated state committees which check and officially announce the start date.

In the UK, where it’s not always possible to sight the moon, people follow the moon sighting declared by Saudi Arabia or another Muslim country. This can mean that different communities in the UK start Ramadan on different days!

This year, Ramadan started on 13th April in England for most Muslims. Next year it will be the beginning of April, the year after that, the end of March and so on – you get the gist.

Oh, so does that mean the length of the fasts change too?

Exactly that! Fasts vary with the time of year and where you live.

The sun sets at different times even across England – so in London, the fast finishes approximately half an hour earlier than up north in Preston where I live (you might hear Muslims semi-joking about wanting to move during this month!).

And each day the time that the fast ends also changes. This year, the first fast in Preston started at 4.25am and finished at 8.14pm. By the end of the month, Prestonians will be fasting for almost 18 hours, with fasts beginning from around 3.20am and finishing just after 9pm.

Summer fasts are naturally the longest in England but in around 10 years’ time, Ramadan will start in December. And winter fasts are super short, sometimes only eight hours.

Compare that to Muslims in Iceland who have some of the longest fasts in the world due to early sunrises and late sunsets – 22 hours!

But how do you know when it’s sunrise and sunset?

Good question. We follow a timetable provided by our local mosque, which is actually precise to the minute.

Oh, and you know it’s time to wake up for suhoor because Muslim folk are busy tweeting at 3am and the WhatsApp notifications keep pinging!

Do you stuff yourself when you can eat?

Hah, it’s advised to not do so! Most people traditionally have a date or a piece of fruit, maybe some fruit and water to open their fast, and meals which follow will vary around the world – it’s all about personal preference.

My iftar will usually consist of a delicious homemade meal plus a savoury snack (culturally, it’s a tradition pre-Ramadan to stock up your freezer with hundreds of varieties of samosas, spring rolls, kebabs, pastries to name but a few things!).

Also, many people will eat moderately and try to pace themselves because after iftar, you have Ramadan nightly prayers to observe, called taraweeh. These prayers take place at the mosque or at home and can go into the late night/early hours. So, the last thing you want is to feel bloated whilst praying!

So, do you lose weight?

Hit and miss – some people do, others don’t!

Can anything break your fast?

Yes, including intentionally eating or drinking. However, genuine mistakes don’t count so if, for example, you eat or drink because you forgot momentarily that you were fasting then that absolutely doesn’t matter and you can continue fasting as normal.

Isn’t it, well, just really hard?

Ramadan is a challenge and a test – in self-restraint, perseverance, and tenacity. But as someone who is a habitual grazer who would struggle on a normal day to not eat or drink, I find that in this month, automatically a psychological switch flicks and I get into a different mindset.

But we’re not superhuman – there will be times when we get tired because long fasts and disrupted sleep can take their toll. So just be kind to your Muslim friends and colleagues.

Oh, so will you be offended if I eat or drink in front of you?

Hugely. Just kidding – it’s not offensive in the slightest. Muslims don’t expect you to give up eating or drinking just because we are!

Although if you wanted to try fasting with a Muslim friend, just to see what it’s like, they will be more than happy to encourage and support you.

How do I wish a Muslim friend a happy Ramadan?

If you want to impress them say Ramadan Mubarak or Ramadan Kareem. They are common greetings Muslims exchange. Or you can just say Happy Ramadan!

And how do you celebrate when the month finishes?

At the end of the Ramadan there is a celebration known as Eid ul-Fitr or Eid, which can last a few days.

Also, Muslims don’t know exactly when Eid is until the night before because…yes, you guessed it, it depends on the moon! The month of Ramadan is usually 29 or 30 days long and the crescent moon has to be sighted before Eid is declared.

On the day of Eid, families typically wake up early to pray and it’s a day of gifts, food (lots of food!) and festivities. Pretty much like Christmas minus the alcohol. The day after Eid is pretty much more of the same, with leftovers!

Has Covid-19 affected things?

Well families and friends often get together during Ramadan for meals and Eid time is usually a huge get together.

Last year all the mosques were closed and Eid, as we knew it, was effectively cancelled due to lockdown. You can imagine how hard that was.

This year, everyone’s hoping there will be some semblance of normality to Ramadan and Eid festivities. Extra prayers being made for this!

Oh, and how do I wish someone a happy Eid?

Eid Mubarak!