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Ramadan. Makes Lent look like a piece of cake.

Thank you to the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail for carrying this piece in their editions on 4 July 2013.Image

(The image is from Islamic Help, http://www.islamichelp.org.uk, and part of its 2013 iHelpSyria fundraising campaign).

For Muslims, it’s that time of year when they switch to extreme self-denial to better themselves. But Ramadan is not just about sacrificing food and drink, as Mohammed Ilyas explains.

Some time over the course of next week, you may find some of your colleagues not looking quite themselves.

They may be a bit bleary-eyed and yawning constantly, a bit lethargic, they’ll turn down offers of a cup of tea or coffee or popping out for a bit of lunch.

They may not tell you what’s ailing them but – just picking a few random names – if they’re called Mohammed, Abdul, Ali or something similar, or in the girls’ case Amina, Fatima, Aisha, etc, then you’ll probably be able to make an educated guess that it’s Ramadan.

For the uninitiated, it’s the time of year when Muslims embark on a month-long daily ritual of fasting which, if you’ll forgive the pun, makes Lent look like a piece of cake.

From dawn to dusk – and this year that’s about 17 hours-plus in the summer – they’ll abstain from eating, drinking, smoking or ingesting anything bar that which has been medically prescribed for their own safety. They’ll also supress any other urges or behaviour which may be deemed not very gentlemanly.

And they’ll try not to swear. Honestly, they try. In my case, it doesn’t always work, and that’s on any ordinary day.

It’s a period when even those who may confess to not being the most devout of Muslims will make the resolution to endure what many would regard as needless torture. To those taking part, it’s the complete opposite.

Fasting during this month – it’s based on the lunar calendar so the start date changes by about 10 days every year – is one of the five pillars, or tenets, of Islam. The others are faith, prayer, pilgrimage to Mecca and Zakat (giving alms to the poor).

For the physical benefits, think of it as extreme detox. Done properly and with the right foods to sustain the body through a long day, it can clear out the poisons and toxins, making it feel renewed and refreshed. But it’s not recommended as a ‘miracle diet’ option.

On the spiritual side, the Muslim belief is that it not only strengthens faith but makes you a better person as its spurs you to good deeds and behaviour especially by helping others in need. That principle should be lifelong anyway but sad to say, as with all people, it’s not always possible to maintain such high standards.

This may all sound a bit ‘goody two-shoes’ but ponder the following. Nearly five per cent of the UK population may be actively involved in Ramadan in some form – Islam is now the second largest religion in the country with nearly 3 million Muslims.

And despite all the negativity and hostility generated towards Muslims by some quarters, the number of converts is increasing. In 2001, it was estimated there were 60,000 converts. Ten years later, that had risen to more than 100,000.

At a time when that hostility seems to be breeding even more mistrust – much of it based on ignorance – Muslims could be forgiven for keeping their heads down. Especially as the mainstream moderate majority who condemn the violence being committed in the name of Islam often feel frustration that their voices are ignored or virtually brushed aside.

For many then, fasting becomes not only an obligatory act of faith but a signal of defiance, a reinforcement of their values of humanity and caring. A badge, if you like, that they are proud of being Muslim.

Which is why many of them feel pleased by Channel 4’s decision to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer every morning during Ramadan. It may well be a stunt as many of the station’s critics claim (not many non-Muslims will be disturbed by it because, honestly, how many of you watch Channel 4 at 3am?).

But what it does is acknowledge that the Muslim population is a significant and generally positive presence in UK society.

Ramadan is not just about fasting but it’s a time when the generosity of spirit extends to the wallet.

It’s during this time of year that many Muslims decide to fulfil another of their religious obligations, Zakat, or giving to the poor and needy.

Basically, for anyone whose income, savings or jewellery is above the £300 mark or so, they are liable for paying 2.50 per cent to charitable causes helping the poor and needy.

So during Ramadan, not only do Muslims deny themselves food and drink but also sacrifice hundreds, thousands and in some cases millions of pounds in charitable giving.

It’s a time of year that’s crucial for charities like the one I work for, Islamic Help. It helps our work sustaining the deprived in poorer countries and helping the victims of emergencies and conflicts, like Syria. It can also be used to help those in debt or struggling to survive.

Not only does this charitable giving meet basic necessities, it’s a step towards helping maintain respect and dignity and offering a chance to build livelihoods and in the long run shake off the shackles of reliance and dependency.

So the next time you look at your Muslim colleague and think ‘Poor soul, no food or drink, and he’s going to give over a large chunk of his wages’, remember this. That self-denial means someone in the world will be fed, watered and given an opportunity to succeed in life.

Ramadan begins on Tuesday [or it could be Wednesday – my italics] and continues for 30 days until August 7 [although, again, the date is not yet definite and depends on the lunar month].

• Mohammed Ilyas is communications officer for Birmingham-based Islamic Help. Visit http://www.islamichelp.org.uk

 

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