Fasting and Ramadan

Aliyya Sawadjaan
A RAPPLER contributor tells us about the special month that just ended, and whether fasting is a form of 'dieting' for Muslim girls like her

THE AUTHOR DURING HER Ramadan fast. Photo courtesy of Aliyya Sawadjaan

MANILA, Philippines – I have been asked so many times how and what it feels like to be Muslim or to grow up as a Muslim.

Questions like: what do we do during the month of Ramadan? How can we survive not eating for the whole month? Do we even eat at all? Why is fasting or puasa so important for all of us?

Ramadan explained

Ramadan is a special month for Muslims all over the globe.

It is during this time that we perform more prayers and read the Holy Quran in its entirety. We do this to establish a link between ourselves and God; to slow down from all worldly affairs and focus on self-reformation, spiritual cleansing and enlightenment.

To most, Ramadan is known as the month we fast from sunrise until sundown.

Fasting, for us, is a way of purifying ourselves from temptations. To fast is to practice self-discipline and self-control; to learn the meaning of sacrifice and empathy for the less fortunate, to encourage generosity and charity.

Another reason why fasting is so important to us is because, by fasting, we believe that we will be rewarded in this life and in the next.

Fasting young and how I coped

I officially started whole-day fasting when I was a freshman in high school.

Before that, in grade 6, I would do half a day of fasting, only until 12 noon. This is allowed for the younger participants of puasa

At first, I started fasting as a way of saving my baon and then spending it on other material things. As I grew older, I understood the importance of fasting better and did it with more fervor. 

During lunch and recess (in high school), I would go to the office of our school paper or to the library instead of going to the canteen with my friends. They understood that I was fasting and that it was important for me; they didn’t pressure me into eating with them or tempt me with their lunches.

Come college, it was the same routine; go to the library at lunchtime until the bell rang. While heading home from school, I’d go to a nearby fast (pun unintended) food restaurant to break my fast. 

Not eating and drinking for a whole day is tough, but only for the first few days.

You get used to it after a while; somehow it becomes a routine. The hunger pangs do not bother you anymore and you become “numb” to the attempts of other people who tempt you to eat something. It’s a matter of putting your mind and focus into something or somewhere else.

Lack of sleep

Before Ramadan, my father would research on the schedule of the sunrise and sunsets that fall on the holy month.

He would tape this schedule on the wall of our kitchen. This is how we know for sure what time we can start and stop our fast daily.

The fasting part is a cinch, in my opinion. What makes it hard(er) is the lack of sleep. 

We begin our fast or puasa at sunrise; we break our fast or buka puasa at sunset.

What most people do not know is that, in the middle of the night, we wake up and eat. At around 3am, my father would wake us all up to go downstairs and prepare our meal, which we call sunnah. (So if our neighbors ever wondered what we were doing in the middle of the night with pots and plates clattering this past month, now you know.) 

After sunnah, we try — emphasis on try — to go back to sleep. This is especially hard when you have to wake up at 6am to get ready for work or school.

Fasting as a way of losing weight

Many people think that, because Muslims do not eat and drink the whole day during Ramadan, it’s a way for women to lose weight.

From my personal experience, it’s not. I have never lost a considerable amount of weight during puasa. (I wish it was so.)

Fasting slows down the body’s metabolism instead of quickening it. Add to this the fact that we eat in the middle of the night when the body has no significant amount of time to digest. 

I actually believe that I gain more weight during Ramadan because of the amount of food my family prepares before the month begins, and for sunnah.

Days before the holy month, my mother would go to the market and buy groceries that would last for a month in normal households. Our simple pre-Ramadan dinners become feasts. After drinking our coffee or tea, we’d have hot soup or porridge before proceeding to the main course.

Exemptions and make-up fasting

Not all Muslims have to participate in fasting; there are exemptions.

Women who are pregnant, nursing and who are having their menstrual period are excused. Menstrual blood is considered unclean and therefore not ‘pure’ in the words of the olden rulings. However, once their period ends, these women are obligated to fast.

Children, older people and those who are sick are also excused from fasting. Kids should hit puberty before fully participating in Ramadan, but they are encouraged to fast on some days or at least half a day, just like what I did when I was younger.

Those who are temporarily sick are excused, since fasting might prolong their illness and cause them to miss more days of fasting. But those who have terminal conditions like diabetes are exempted, since these are illnesses that may need regular medication with food intake.

Those who were excused from fasting for a time must make up for it even after Eid ul-Fitr. The number of days that they did not fast during the holy month is exactly the number of days they must make up for.

I got sick last week for 3 days due to my allergies and had to take prescribed medicines after meals. So, even after Eid, I have to fast for 3 days in exchange for the days I missed.

Hari raya and charity

An important aspect of Ramadan is charity or zakat.

For people who engage in charitable work or projects on a normal basis, during Ramadan, these acts are considered more special. Fitra, a form of charity that Muslims do, is performed during Eid ul-Fitr or at the end of Ramadan (celebrated globally yesterday, August 19, and commemorated in the Philippines today, August 20). 

During Eid, my family prepares food to eat together. While the women cook at home, the men pray in the nearby masjid.

Sometimes, we invite family, friends and relatives over to celebrate with us. Our phones would ring non-stop and they would be friends calling to wish us “Happy Hari raya.” Others send their “Happy Eid ul-Fitr” greetings to us through mobile or social media. 

If I look 10 years back, how people perceived Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr then was very different.

Back then, people would not be aware that it was Ramadan. We would celebrate Eid ul-Fitr only in our community.

Today, people all over the country are celebrating with us. 

This gives me hope that more and more people are becoming open to Islam, and are caring to know more about our culture. –

Happy Eid ul-Fitr to our Muslim brothers and sisters!

Aliyya Sawadjaan is taking her MA in Creative Writing at De La Salle University. She is also a professional freelance photographer and the great grandddaughter of Senator Hadji Butuh. Senator Butuh served as prime minister to various sultans of Sulu in the 1800s; his first Senate bill in the 1900s sponsored the establishment of the Philippine Military Academy, Philippine Naval Academy and the compulsory military instruction in all Philippine schools.

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