It’s almost time for my annual kick in the butt.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, in which Muslims fast from shortly before dawn until dusk, this year starts Saturday.
Each year, Ramadan serves as a nudge to remember to practice my faith. All the things that I’m supposed to do throughout the year — pray daily, read the Quran, give to charity — I make a special effort to actually do. It’s a perfect opportunity to recharge and hopefully maintain some momentum.
In addition to abstaining from food and drink (yes, even water), smoking and sex during the day, Muslims are supposed to refrain from sinning in general and instead bolster their levels of stamina and patience, enhance their understanding of sacrifice and gratitude and, most important, strengthen their relationship with God, or Allah.
Fasting is considered a pillar of Islam and is required of those who are healthy enough to do so. Young children, the elderly, menstruating, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and travelers all get a pass.
Getting through a month of fasting is hard, but there are things you can do to make it easier and more meaningful, for yourself or your Muslim friends.
Typically, I start the month off strong. I wake up in plenty of time for the pre-fast meal, which is known as sehri, sehar or suhoor. In the early part of the month this year, the fast will begin around 5:30 a.m. in the Los Angeles area.
Tip No. 1: Don’t skip sehri
I’m not a big breakfast eater in general, but I know from experience that not waking up for sehri will bring on hangry pains of regret pretty early in the day.
Most of the daily fasts in 2022 will hover around 14 hours. Since the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, Ramadan starts about 10 days earlier every year. When the month coincides with winter, the daily fast can be as short as 10 hours.
Tip No. 2: Be mindful of what you do eat
Avoiding salty, fatty and greasy foods at sehri makes sense. Those will just lead to bloating and dehydration. Reducing your caffeine intake in the days leading up to Ramadan is advisable, so you don’t have to quit cold turkey on Day One. You’re just asking for a caffeine withdrawal headache otherwise.
For the first few days of Ramadan, I’ll stock up on protein early in the morning: a hard-boiled egg mixed with spicy tomato chutney and white rice, and maybe even a beef shaami patty, is a solid go-to meal for me.
Others who can stand it speak highly of oatmeal as an energy source. Dates, nuts and lentils are also good in that regard and help with a feeling of fullness to boot. I don’t particularly like whole wheat bread but it’s acceptable for avocado toast, an easy enough thing to prepare while half-asleep.
By the end of Week 2 of Ramadan, I’ve surely started setting a second alarm because the first one is being immediately ignored. As the days get longer, the fast starts a few minutes earlier each day and ends a minute or two later.
Answering a second wake-up call instead of the first means there is less time to eat, so as Ramadan progresses, sehri for me usually gets streamlined to a bowl of Raisin Bran (because … fiber), and some yogurt, to also help with digestion and a feeling of detoxification.
Tip No. 3: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Generally, I find feeling thirsty during Ramadan is way worse than feeling hungry.
Staying hydrated is crucial to getting through the day. I down as much lemon-lime Gatorade and water as I can bear to swallow at sehri.
Tip No. 4: Work from home, if possible
Remote work has made fasting so much easier for me. After sehri and the morning prayer, fajr, I can go back to bed for about an hour before I take my daughter to school. Lying down so soon after eating isn’t the healthiest thing to do. But I’m not especially interested in washing the dishes or starting a load of laundry when I can instead conserve my strength. Do what you can handle.
My job, thankfully, doesn’t require physical labor or standing on my feet all day. I can move from bedroom to office space in my pajamas and get done what I need to on my laptop.
The privacy and comfort of home also allows me (in theory) to take quick breaks to get in the daily prayers Muslims are supposed to say at noon and in the late afternoon.
Tip No. 5: Take time for self-reflection
After work is the best time for me to turn my attention to looking inward. Prayers can be conducive to reflecting, but so is reading, be it the Quran or other spiritual material.
A short walk around the neighborhood (if it’s not too hot) can be meditative too.
Tip No. 6: Naps are OK. So are cool showers
On workdays, I’ll usually plow through the day and try to get to bed early instead of taking a nap. But on the weekends, I’ll usually lie down in the afternoon. Some of the best naps of my life have been during Ramadan. Going to sleep also has the added advantage of killing time before you can break the fast with the meal called iftar.
On hot days, which are typically tougher for fasting, a cool shower or a quick dip in a pool can go a long way toward making you feel refreshed.
Tip No. 7: Don’t overeat at iftar — or afterward
Once the sun sets, it’s permissible to eat again. It was the tradition of the prophet Muhammad to break his fast with a date, and many Muslim families, including my own, do that as well. I try to keep my iftar meal light: a date, a samosa or an egg roll, some apple or orange slices and cranberry juice. I just want something to take the edge off before the evening prayer, maghrib. After that, I eat something more substantial, almost always with meat.
I used to think daily fasting would lead to weight loss. But almost every Ramadan, I manage to put on a pound or two. The body’s metabolism slows from not eating for long stretches. And it takes a real effort to not indulge in the evenings after practicing self-denial all day long.
During the pandemic, my family has not gathered with other Muslims for community iftars. For an introvert like me, staying at home and not having to get dressed up has been just fine. But iftars do allow you to catch up with family and friends you haven’t seen in a while, and they offer an opportunity to savor being a part of the ummah, the Muslim community at large, one that is supposed to transcend differences of race, ethnicity, class and nationality.
Tip No. 8: Try to participate in jummah and taraweeh prayers
A few years back, I attended jummah, or Friday, prayers at a different mosque in Southern California every week. It was an interesting experiment for me, if only to get a sense of what different mosques were emphasizing during Ramadan. Mosques also offer special taraweeh prayers during Ramadan. In those long late-night prayers, the entirety of the Quran is recited in Arabic over the month.
Tip No. 9: Make an effort to perform community service and give zakat
There are a number of Muslim-led social service organizations in Southern California, including ICNA Relief, Uplift Charity, Olive Community Services and Sabil USA. During Ramadan especially, when Muslims are exhausted from fasting all day, the need for volunteers is great. You can help pack and hand out food boxes for the needy, for example, or help at diaper distributions or sort donated clothing for refugees.
Ramadan also is a welcome time for Muslims to pay their annual zakat, or 2.5% of their wealth, to charity. It isn’t required to pay zakat during Ramadan, but many Muslims choose to do so because of the month’s spiritual rewards.
Tip 10: Even if you aren’t fasting, you can still support Muslims during Ramadan
It is not necessary for a non-Muslim to fast to show solidarity during Ramadan. Certainly, those who want to try to fast the whole day, or even a part of the day, are welcome to do so. Fasting certainly does create empathy for those who don’t have food security.
Mostly, a fasting person wants a modicum of understanding. Be patient with them. They may not be thinking clearly because they haven’t eaten in a long while and their usual sleep pattern has been disrupted.
Their lips may be chapped and their mouth dry because they haven’t been able to sip water.
Their breath? Yeah, it reeks. You can tell them there is a hadith, or saying of Mohammed, that contends the breath of a fasting person is more pleasant to God than the fragrance of musk. Actually … don’t point out their stinky breath. Just make a mental note why it is that way.
For Muslims, it can get tiresome having to explain what Ramadan is all about when you’re fasting. Consider saving that conversation for another time, when the person has eaten and is better rested. (Or maybe just reread this article?)
Usually, it’s OK to eat in front of a fasting person (life does go on, after all), but sensitivity and tolerance levels are going to vary. What almost always feels invasive is when someone asks why you aren’t fasting. Don’t make a woman tell you she’s on her period.
Finally, be sure to tell your Muslim friends “Ramadan mubarak” or “Ramadan kareem,” wishes for a good Ramadan. It means so much to have that support, an acknowledgment that self-improvement is worth the effort.
It’s a challenge to fast every day for about 30 days straight, but it’s a kick in the butt that I need every year. Hopefully, following these tips will help all of us gain extra benefit from this year’s Ramadan.