Observed by millions of Muslims worldwide, Ramadan is an interesting mix of austerity and celebration. For those who are observing it, it’s nil by mouth from when the sun rises, so it’s very important to eat and drink wisely to avoid dehydration and maintain energy levels throughout the day. Here are 10 important things to know about Ramadan:
- Fasting happens during daylight hours
Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar and begins with hilal, which is the Arabic word for crescent or “new moon.” This happens in the ninth month of each lunar year. But because the lunar cycle steadily moves backwards, Ramadan falls earlier and earlier each year—moving back 11 days each time.
- There are two main meals eaten during Ramadan
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. During this month, two main meals are eaten daily. They are called suhoor (served pre-dawn) and iftar (served at sunset). Suhoor should be a hearty meal to provide energy throughout a day of fasting. It ends when the sun rises and fajr or morning prayer begins. Some choose to sleep rather than prepare food and eat during suhoor.
- Dates are traditionally the first thing eaten at iftar
In adherence to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad broke his fast, a handful of dates followed by a glass of water are consumed before Maghrib (evening prayer) and the main meal. Soaking dates in milk overnight is a Middle Eastern iftar favourite. Some would eat dates followed by fruit or yogurt, which helps to kick-start the body’s metabolism after a day’s worth of fasting.
- Hunger-busting drinks are a big thing during Ramadan
These beverages are not only cooling, they also contain a lot of fibres, protein and antioxidants. In the Middle East, there is jallab (a sweet drink made from dates, rosewater and carob, usually served with pine nuts and raisins) and khoshaf (another sweet treat made of boiled dried fruits like apricots, plums, figs, dates and raisins and flavoured with rosewater). Malaysia and Singapore have millennial-pink bandung, which is a rosewater-flavoured milky drink.
- Fasting during Ramadan is a must, but there are ‘loopholes’
On top of keeping thoughts pure, Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking and refraining from extra pleasures such as cigarettes and chewing gum from sunrise to sunset each day. However, there are some instances in which a fast can be broken. According to the Quran, those who are unwell and/or taking medication, elderly, travelling, pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as children under the age of puberty, can forgo fasting—especially if it will negatively impact their health. A fast can also be broken if a woman is on her period.
- Despite the daily fasting, Ramadan is actually notorious for being a month of weight gain
The fasting and low activity levels during the day often give way to binge eating at night, which can result in slower metabolic cycles that may cause the body to store fat instead of burning it. Not only that, iftar meals are quite heavy and traditionally high in carbohydrates. So in order to maintain a healthy weight throughout the month, Muslims are encouraged to drink plenty of water, eat a diet full of fruits, veg and protein, and try to wake up every morning for suhoor.
- Check local laws if you’re travelling during Ramadan
Although it’s not mentioned in the Quran, there are Islamic countries that have made it illegal for anyone—regardless of their belief—to eat, drink, smoke and even chew gum in public during daylight during Ramadan to support Muslims who are fasting. Those seen as breaking the code can be penalised, either through a hefty fine or imprisonment.
- Iftar traditions vary in different countries
In some places, people keep it small and simple, and some will host iftar at an elder’s home like a grandparent or uncle. In other countries, such as the UAE, iftar is a feast with several courses. Dishes include traditional soups such as lentil, cream-based vermicelli and roasted tomato soup.
- Ramadan is known as the month of giving
During this time especially, Muslims will engage in charitable acts such as donating food and money to those in need. It is an almsgiving known as zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam along with fasting.
- Eid marks the end of Ramadan
Eid al-Fitr, which means ‘feast of breaking the fast’, is a three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. This begins when the new moon is sighted, and Muslims rely on news of an official sighting of the new moon rather than looking at the sky themselves. This also means that Eid dates differ around the world, although they are a day or two away from each other. It’s a massive event in the Islamic calendar—think Christmas and Easter Sunday combined.