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Not even water: An Introduction to Ramadan for Non-Muslims

As the sun sets on Wednesday, nearly two billion people in countries around the world will begin to observe Ramadan.

That includes in Australia, where more than 800,000 people follow Islam, according to the 2021 Census.

Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During this month, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset while increasing prayer and charity.

Why does the date keep changing?

Because it is based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan's date creeps up 10 days earlier every year.

In 2023, it will begin on the evening of 22 March and end around 21 April, depending on when the new moon is sighted.

People pray at a mosque.

Ramadan is a special month for nearly two billion people around the world. Source: Getty / Jewel Samad

The holy month is a significant time of spiritual reflection, and fasting during the entire month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.

That's why your Muslim friend or work colleague may suddenly go AWOL during lunch breaks or decline your offer of a morning coffee.

So, you don’t eat for a month?

No, it’s not like that. Muslims who are fasting during Ramadan don't eat or drink anything from the breaking of dawn until the sun sets. Not even water.

While fasting, Muslims also abstain from smoking (that includes shisha and vaping), taking medication, and sexual activity.

But when the sun sets, it’s all systems go.

People eat together at a dinner table.

Many Muslim families break their fast together when the sun sets. Source: Getty / Asanka Ratnayake

The first meal at sunset is called iftar - the breaking of the fast. It's common practice for Muslims to start their iftar by eating a date (or three) and water.

After that, it's about pacing yourself; there's often a lot of food to get through before the sun starts to come up.

Muslims are also encouraged to wake up just before the crack of dawn for a meal before their day of fasting starts - this is called suhur in Arabic, or sehri in Urdu.

Some will have a full breakfast prepared, while others prefer to have a light snack and some water to prepare for the day ahead.

So if your Muslim friends are liking your Instagram posts or responding to your messages in the middle of the night, you now know why they're awake.

But why do you fast?

Sure, you get hungry and thirsty, but that’s kind of the point.

Ramadan is a challenge but, for many people, it’s also about understanding the suffering of the less fortunate. It acts as an emotional and spiritual cleansing, with lots of time spent on introspection.

This year, the first 10 days of Ramadan will fall in the daylight savings timezone for some Australian states. That means Muslims who are fasting will feel like they have longer to wait in the evenings before they can break their fast until daylight savings ends on 2 April.

And it's no struggle compared to some of our European friends who are facing 16-hour fasts.

A chart showing 4 places where Ramadan fasting is longest

Source: SBS News

Is Ramadan just about food?

Reducing Ramadan to food isn't quite right. An instrumental part of the month is being the best person possible to reap the rewards that Muslims believe are afforded to them during the holy month.

Many people will make concerted efforts to refrain from gossiping and other bad habits, read more Quran, spend their nights at the mosque to pray, learn more about their religion and connect with God.

Donating to the less fortunate is encouraged, and at the end of the month Muslims are required to give a portion of their wealth to charity.

and is another of the five pillars of Islam.

Another special component of Ramadan is Laylatul-Qadr (or the Night of Power), which falls on an odd-numbered evening in the last 10 days of the month. Muslims believe that good deeds will be multiplied by a thousand times if performed that night.

While Sunni Muslims stay awake on the last odd night - 17 April this year - others, including Shia Muslims, will stay awake every odd-numbered night in the last 10 days. They often do this at the mosque, in community halls, or in their homes.

It's important to note that there isn't one way to observe Ramadan - every Muslim will set their own personal goals on what they'd like to achieve before the month is up.

Is it okay if I eat in front of someone who is fasting?

Sure. But please excuse the longing stares at your food and occasional, accidental drool.

While you probably feel guilty for eating in front of someone who is hungry, your Muslim friend likely already has their heart set on the sweet feast that awaits them at sunset.

If you make a big deal out of it, it gets awkward. Their meal is coming, don't worry.

Does everyone have to fast?

Not everyone. Children and the elderly are exempt, as are those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, menstruating, travelling, or ill.

If a Muslim has missed some fasting days - and they are fit to fast after the month has finished - they are encouraged to do so before the next Ramadan rolls around.

Some people also have their own personal reasons for choosing not to fast. So if you notice your Muslim friend or colleague eating during the day, it's respectful not to ask them why in public.

Do you lose weight?

Not necessarily. Everyone's body is different and the intention of fasting isn't to drop some kilos.

Some people might even gain a little weight from shovelling morsels of food throughout the night.

People queuing at a food stall at night

People queue for food at night time in Lakemba, Sydney, during Ramadan 2022. Source: Getty / Izhar Khan/NurPhoto

How do I wish you a happy Ramadan?

There are several ways to show your Muslim friends some support as they embark on a spiritually challenging month.

The easiest way would be to acknowledge the month has begun! A huge influx of greetings is often shared between Muslims, similar to how people say "Merry Christmas" during the holiday season.

The most common sayings are "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem", but don't feel confused if you hear different variations.

Different cultures will say their greetings in their own language. Some others you might hear are:

  • Ramazanınız mübarek olsun (Turkish)
  • Ramzaan Mubarak (Urdu)
  • Roza Mobarik-Shah (Pashto)
  • Ramjan Mubarak (Bangla)

Muslims will celebrate the end of Ramadan with a three-day holiday called Eid-al Fitr.

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Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify the impact of daylight savings on people who are fasting.


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