Ramadan in Britain during the early Eighties was very different from the way it is now. There was no awareness of the rotating month of fasting in the Islamic calendar, no flexibility to working hours, no facility for prayer in offices and no calls for prayer on television. For one month every year, my family and I would undertake this annual Islamic duty furtively, tip-toeing around for the pre-dawn meal for fear of waking up the neighbours with the kitchen clatter, and reluctant to talk about the practice for fear of censure or mockery. The Eid festival that marks the end of Ramadan is also increasingly celebrated in public venues around the country, including Trafalgar Square in London. Channel 4 announced last week that it would broadcast one out of five “calls for prayer” during the month-long fasting period.
Four decades on, Ramadan is marked far more openly in Britain. Some employers are offering flexi-time to those Muslims who, from this week, will undertake a daily fast for 30 consecutive days that will involve around 19 hours of abstention from all food and drink – from sunrise to sunset. Some firms are allowing Muslims to begin their working day later, so they can catch up on sleep after waking up at 3am to eat, and to end their shifts earlier, so that they are not working when they are physically weakened. Now, fasting seems to have been reinvented as the ancients saw it – a way of giving the body a rest, cleansing both physically and spiritually, and a way of sharpening our collective sense of self-restraint. These objectives are being resurrected in our obesity-riddled Western world, with its binge culture, its childhood obesity and its addictions to food.
Dr Michael Mosley’s Horizon investigation in 2012, which studied the effects of intermittent fasting, presented medical evidence for the life-extending and life-improving benefits of fasting on the human body, though this is still contentious territory in the scientific and nutritional community. Even grander claims came from American scientists last year who said that fasting for regular periods could help protect the brain against degenerative illness.
Faith and fasting: Ramadan rules
* Fasting at Ramadan is deemed to be one of the “five pillars of Islam”, which are the basis of the Muslim faith. Only children or those health conditions or children are excepted from fasting.
* Fasting is seen to cleanse the soul from worldly impurities. It also serves to formally train Muslims to repel negative social vices through self-control and restraint.
* In the UK, 2.7 million citizens are Muslim, according to the 2011 census, comprising 4.8 per cent of the population. Among under-25s, the figure is 10 per cent.
* Advice on how to deal with Ramadan is widely available to schools, which are largely tolerant and flexible. Stoke-on-Trent city council advised in 2010 that schools should rearrange exams, cancel swimming lessons, sex education and school-wide social events during Ramadan, as well as offering school meals as packed lunches to take home to facilitate flexibility.