7 questions about Ramadan you’re too embarrassed to ask

There’s a good chance that you – or someone from our University of Leeds community – will be celebrating, fasting and doing all sorts of other activities that are unique to the month. But what is Ramadan? And why is it so important? In this piece, Nafisa Shafiq, Student Communications and Engagement Manager at the University of Leeds, shares the answers to some of the most common questions about Ramadan.

A woman is smiling at the table with her children and partner during evening mealtime.

1. What is Ramadan and how is it different from Eid?

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, and the most important month for Muslims as it’s believed to be the month in which God revealed the first verses of the Quran – Islam’s sacred text – to Prophet Mohammed on a night known as The Night of Power (or Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic).

During this month, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset every day. It’s a month that’s meant to be about spiritual discipline – reflecting on one’s relationship with God, extra prayer, increased charity and generosity, and increased study of the Quran.

This may make it sound boring, but it’s far from that! For Muslims, Ramadan is a time to celebrate and connect with loved ones and members of our community, regardless of faith or belief.

Ramadan ends with a three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast, which is a version of Christmas for Muslims, in the sense that it’s a religious holiday. Everyone comes together for big meals with family and friends to exchange presents and generally have a lovely time.

2. Why do Muslims fast?

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam – rules that all Muslims follow – along with Shahadah (declaration of faith), Salat (prayer), Zakat (charity), and the Hajj pilgrimage.

All Muslims are required to take part every year, but there are some who do not need to fast, including those who are ill, pregnant or nursing, menstruating, travelling, or for young children and the elderly.

Fasting serves many spiritual and social purposes. It shows you what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty, so you feel compassion for (and a duty to help) the poor and needy. It also helps reduce distractions, helping you to focus more clearly on bettering yourself and your relationship with God.

When fasting, Muslims do not eat or drink (not even water!), they don’t smoke or engage in any sexual activity. Chewing gum is also prohibited. Doing any of these things breaks your fast, which you can make up at any point in the year or by providing a meal for a needy person.

During Ramadan, many try to better themselves. They try to curb negative thoughts and emotions like jealousy or anger, and make efforts to stop swearing, complaining and gossiping. Some Muslims also choose to give up or limit activities like listening to music or watching television. Many also adapt their physical appearance so it is aligned with the teachings of Islam, eg females may wear a headscarf while male Muslims may grow a beard.

3. What does a typical fasting day look like?

During Ramadan, Muslims wake up before dawn to eat their first meal of the day. They try to make sensible choices, attempting to drink lots of water and eat healthier food that will keep them fuller for longer.

After eating, they pray Fajr, the morning prayer, and many go back to sleep until they need to wake up again for the day.

While fasting, Muslims try to carry on as usual. They’re not supposed to avoid work or university, or any other normal duties, though some try to adapt their day to make the day easier.

Muslims break their fast at sunset with a snack which is known as iftar. This is also the time of the evening prayer, Maghrib.

They then eat a meal a bit later in the evening, and read Isha, the night-time prayer, alongside a special prayer that’s only performed during Ramadan. Many then go to sleep for a few hours before it’s time to wake up and start all over again, while some choose to stay awake!

4. Do you lose weight during Ramadan?

Though fasting during Ramadan sounds like a great way to lose weight, it really isn’t!

Ramadan is notorious for causing weight gain as many eat really early or late and have longer periods of low activity which can wreak havoc on your metabolism.

Some people may see some small weight loss, but like an extreme diet plan, you’ll regain this when Ramadan ends.

5. Why do the dates of Ramadan change every year?

The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar calendar, which is usually 11 days shorter than the solar calendar. This brings Ramadan back by approximately 11 days each year.

A young female student reader, in hijab scarf, sitting in a golden autumn park and reading the Quran.

This impacts how people experience Ramadan each year. When Ramadan falls in winter, it tends to be easier as shorter days mean shorter fasts. But during summer, it’s the complete opposite and as the days are hotter, not being able to drink water can be challenging.

In 2022, as the days get longer in the UK, the fasts will be around 15.5 hours long at the beginning of the month increasing to 18 hours towards the end of Ramadan.

6. Why do Muslims celebrate the start of Ramadan and Eid on different days?

The change in the lunar cycle is one of the reasons for the confusion around when exactly Ramadan and Eid take place. The second is because of disagreements about science, history and tradition, plus a bit of geopolitical rivalry.

Historically, the start of Ramadan was announced after the new moon was sighted. As the new moon isn’t really visible at night many Muslims started fasting after the faint crescent moon became visible.

This method was messy, and due to weather conditions, Muslims in different parts of the same country began fasting on different days.

A kneeling man praying within a light, open space in a mosque.

Now though, despite science telling us when the new moon begins, there are still disagreements. This is because some Muslim scholars still follow how the moon was spotted during the times of the Prophet Muhammad, while others argue that scientific calculations should be used.

If it wasn’t complex enough, some Muslims believe that they should begin Ramadan with Saudi Arabia as it is the birthplace of Islam. But others don’t agree and argue that things like time zones and locations impact when a moon can be seen, therefore changing the start and end dates of Ramadan and Eid.

7. How should I behave around Muslims during Ramadan?

Many members of our Leeds community will be observing Ramadan this month, and you may be thinking about what you should and shouldn’t be doing around them. In general:

  • Eating around those who are fasting is fine – just try and ignore the growling stomachs, or someone staring at your cup of coffee or water with sheer admiration!
  • Be conscious of when you’re scheduling meetings and socials – early mornings may be difficult for some Muslims due to lack of sleep. And if you’re meeting at lunchtime, don’t be offended if Muslims who are fasting don’t join in.
  • Don’t feel as though you need to fast too. You can if you want to see what it’s like, but Muslims won’t be offended if you carry on as normal.
An Islamic family praying before iftar. There are adults and children raising their hands in prayer, with a selection of food ready to eat on the table.
  • You can join in iftar if you want to. Many Muslims like to make this a communal activity so get involved if you can. Find out about the Ramadan arrangements on campus.
  • Don’t feel guilty if you’ve accidentally offered a drink to someone who is fasting.
  • Try not to say how sorry you feel for a Muslim who is fasting. Muslims see fasting as a privilege – there’s no need to feel bad for them!
  • Don’t ask someone if they are or aren’t fasting. There may be personal reasons why individuals may not fast which may be difficult to discuss, so generally try to avoid these questions if you can.

Don’t be afraid to ask a question if you want to learn more. Many Muslims happily talk about Ramadan, but remember, some may not – so don’t be offended if they pass on this.

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The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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