11/06/2018 2:30 AM IST

What It's Really Like To Fast During Ramadan

Saba Ali
During the month of Ramadan, most Muslims go without food or water from sunrise to sunset. Suhoor (the predawn breakfast) and iftar (the evening meal) can be substantial affairs.

It’s 3 a.m., and I’m about to guzzle down enough protein to fuel a marathon. But my measure of success isn’t defined by miles; it’s whether I can make it through the next 17 hours of not eating, not drinking and not cursing out the driver in front of me.

Ramadan can be physically demanding, emotionally exhausting and mentally crippling. It is a monthlong boot camp for the body, mind and soul. The articles about healthy suhoor recipes, communing with God and community spirit ― most likely written before the days of food deprivation ― are helpful. What’s not helpful are those stories about Muslim professional athletes who manage to train and compete and win on little sleep and no water breaks, energized by faith alone. Is that even human?

The last few years, as an online editor, I would warn my team when Ramadan was approaching. The energy in my voice wasn’t excitement for the 30 days when Muslims, such as myself, fast from dawn to dusk. It was impending dread. My fuse would be shorter, and there would be no rolling with the punches over changing project requirements or blown deadlines. The days of rewarding patience with baked treats and sipping water during meetings to forestall hasty words were numbered. Energy was about to become a fixed commodity — observably finite, like the charge on my smartphone — each step, decision or uttered word draining me to empty.

I warn my team when Ramadan is approaching. My fuse would be shorter, and there would be no rolling with the punches over changing project requirements or blown deadlines.

I’ve been fasting for the month for more than 25 years and have yet to feel the faster’s high. It’s simply hard, and it’s been even harder the last few years — and not just because I’m getting older. The Islamic calendar works on the lunar cycle, which means Ramadan starts 10 days earlier every year. So in the good old days when Ramadan was during the winter (15 years ago), the days were shorter and the meals longer. My friends and I used to break fast after getting home from school, go to the mosque and then meet up for dessert, with time left over to sit back and digest

Now I try to squeeze eating, sleeping and prayer into the few waking hours between sunset and sunrise at the height of summer. My strategy has become to keep movement to a minimum and make starkly utilitarian decisions such as “Do I move my work shift earlier so I can go home and sleep?” and “Should I nap before driving home or risk nodding off during my 40-minute commute?” Two weeks into Ramadan and running on fumes, I consider only recipes with two steps: Defrost and eat. And my conversations with God sound more like “Oh, my God, are you kidding me?”

I have friends who start weaning themselves off coffee weeks in advance to stave off the headaches and anxiety of caffeine withdrawal. Others fast half days or even one day a week to get used to operating on very little food. I honestly don’t know how smokers make it through the month. They must achieve a yogi-like state of fasting Zen unbeknownst to the likes of me, who can’t seem to function without chocolate for more than an hour.

Online I have found helpful hacks (such as chia seeds to keep hydrated and taking Midol at suhoor for the slow release of caffeine) and some not so helpful (such as cayenne pepper under the nostrils to cure headaches and not using the bathroom in the morning to trick your system into feeling full).

Why do I ― and many of the other estimated 3.45 million Muslims in America ― fast, given such blatant hardship? The short answer is that it’s just what we do as Muslims. It’s one of the five pillars of our faith, along with belief in one God and the Prophet Muhammad, praying five times a day, donating 2.5 percent of our wealth to charity and pilgrimage to Mecca.  

Choosing to fast during Ramadan helps us appreciate our blessings and build empathy for those who go without not by choice.

It’s also because choosing to fast during Ramadan helps us appreciate our blessings and build empathy for those who go without not by choice.

One might think this is extreme, but I’ve found one of the beauties of Ramadan is that it’s one of the few acts of worship entirely between me and God. I could easily sneak a cupcake, and no one would care or notice. Every action, thought and word is governed by a heightened sense of awareness that God’s always there — something we Muslims are very much used to.

Ramadan is hard, as it should be. It challenges every bit of my patience and self-preservation while I try to find opportunities to be a better person. Going without food or drink makes life feel like molasses. The hours slow down, and thinking, motivation and patience become work. I feel the hunger in my bones, my brain and my body. But true empathy is a hard thing to come by and harder to hold on to, even when you try to wear someone else’s skin. While I might succeed in crawling through the month, every year I feel that in between the feasting with friends and battling my inner grump, I fail at grasping just how blessed my life actually is.

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