No, not even water: A guide to Ramadan for non-Muslims

Not sure what Ramadan is all about? Here's why many Muslims fast during their holy month.

People praying in the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque in Sydney, Australia.

Muslims participate in the first Taraweeh prayer of Ramadan at the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque in Sydney, Australia. Source: Anadolu / Getty Images

More than a billion people across the world are observing Ramadan by fasting during daylight hours for a month. 

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

Because it is based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan's date creeps up 10 days earlier every year. In 2022, it will begin on 2 April and end around 1 May — depending on when the new moon is sighted.

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

If you’ve been wondering why your Muslim friend or work colleague has suddenly gone AWOL during lunch breaks or declined your offer for a morning coffee, they are probably fasting during the month of Ramadan.

So, you don’t eat for a month?

No, it’s not like that. Basically, you don't eat or drink anything from the breaking of dawn until the sun sets. No, not even water.

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

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, Muslims should pace themselves - there's usually a lot of food to get through before the sun comes 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. So, if your Muslim friends are liking your Instagram posts or responding to your messages at 4am, you now know why they're up.

But why?

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.

And Australians are getting it pretty easy with Ramadan falling in autumn, making 10-hour fasting days short and sweet ... that's compared to some of our European friends who are facing 16-hour fasts in a day.

But because Ramadan's dates change yearly, the holy month will begin well before daylight savings ends in 2023 ... so, Australians better brace for longer, warmer days of fasting very soon.

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 the religion and connect with God.
Overhead view of four people each reading a Quran at their home.
A family reads the Quran following afternoon prayer, known as Asr, at their home during Ramadan in Sydney. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images
Donating to the poor is encouraged (and at the end of the month Muslims are required to give a portion of their wealth to the less fortunate).

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 a fasting person?

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 do it?

Nope. Children, the elderly, pregnant or breastfeeding women, people who are menstruating, travelling and those who are ill are all exempt.

If a person 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 Muslims have their own personal reasons for choosing not to fast. If you notice your Muslim friend or colleague eating, it's respectful not to ask them why in public.

Do you lose weight?

No. It isn’t like The Biggest Loser. And it most definitely isn't a trending diet. On the contrary, chances are you'll gain a few kilos from shovelling morsels of food throughout the night.

But, hey, that’s not stopping people from doing a Sonny Bill Williams-style Ramadan and hitting the gym.

4 min read
Published 21 May 2018 at 7:30am, updated 1 April 2022 at 4:43pm
By Rashida Yosufzai, Rayane Tamer
Source: SBS