Ask a Muslim: What’s the Deal with Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year, which follows a lunar calendar. The lunar calendar is ten days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, which means that Ramadan starts ten days earlier every year. For example, I first started fasting I was eight, when Ramadan was in November.

In the lunar calendar, each month tracks the cycle of the moon. The month starts when the new moon is born, i.e. when the crescent moon is visible. The full moon occurs around the 15th, after which it wanes until the end of the month.

There are two methods for determining the birth of the new moon, and hence the beginning (and end) of Ramadan: calculations, and moonsighting. One opinion relies on calculating the theoretical birth day of the moon. The second opinion is exactly what it sounds like: physically sighting the moon. Generally, in North America we begin fasting if the moon has been sighted in the Western hemisphere.

Because of this dependency, we usually do not know when the month will begin until the night before.

One of my favourite memories as a child was moonsighting. The evening preceding the predicted first of the month, we would venture with our families and friends to a designated moonsighting hill, or to the Lawrence Hall of Science, which has an amazing view of the Bay Area. Mostly, we’d eat – think of it like a picnic at dusk – and hang out with friends. Some years, when the evening was clear, we could clearly see the crescent moon in the sky: nothing was more exciting.

Fasting may seem like a burden, but most people (at least in my experience) will disagree. Personally, I love Ramadan; it’s a time of both spirituality and community.

I will now address some very common questions or comments.

What’s the deal?

Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. We refrain from food, drink, and sexual activities during the daylight hours. Some people will also opt against watching television or listening to music, in favour of extra prayers or worship. I find it interesting that during this month, we avoid things which are normally not only permissible, but essential to survival. One benefit is empathizing with the less fortunate, such as those who cannot afford three meals a day, although this is a side benefit. The main purpose here is become more spiritual; feelings of hunger and thirst throughout the day prompt constant awareness of and connection to God. Besides, no one voluntarily starves for eighteen hours a day without a reason.

Many Muslims will also offer extra prayers, donate money, read the holy book, and perform extra worship during this time. A lot of people also attend nightly prayers at the mosque, which are specifically offered in Ramadan only.

Those exempt from fasting are travelers, sick people, and menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding women. This isn’t meant to be difficult; if someone is unable to fast, they are not obligated to.

You don’t eat for 30 days?

No. That is called suicide. We are only allowed to eat when the sun is down; in Waterloo, this means fasting between approximately 4 AM and 9 PM. Fasting times obviously depend on geographical location, as there are more hours of sunlight farther north.

The predawn meal is called suhoor. Personally, I only wake up to chug a bottle of water and then pray; I opt to sacrifice food rather than sleep, although this is not recommended. Iftar, the evening meal, literally means “break fast”. Iftar is a very communal affair, and contributes to the generous and community-based nature of this month.

Not even water?

No, not even water.

I would never be able to do that

I receive this comment a lot, even from fellow Muslims. It may sound difficult, but it really isn’t. Maybe this is because I’ve been doing it for years, or maybe the spiritual nature of this month makes it feel easy.

To be honest, I am usually not hungry during the day. Sleep deprivation, which is exacerbated by lack of coffee, is actually the hardest part. Since it is impossible to get an uninterrupted full night of sleep, naps are our friends.

That must be great for losing weight

I hear two common health-related comments: “that must be great for losing weight”, and “that’s so unhealthy”. Neither of which are true.

First of all, let’s clear something up. I am not fasting to lose weight. I have absolutely no interest in losing weight. I am fasting because I believe it is mandated by my religion.

In fact, weight gain is relatively common during Ramadan. Many people overindulge when the sun has set, exceeding their normal caloric intake. Additionally, ethnic foods associated with Ramadan are often deep-fried and unhealthy.

I would just like to note that this was never the case in my household. My parents are very health-conscious, and not at all cultural, so we avoid fried food. A typical iftar at home consists of dates (which are recommended for breaking fast with, since they are high calories and spike blood sugar, which is needed after eighteen hours without food), fruits, veggies, and nuts – my mom pumps us full of greens at a time when we are too hungry to protest. After the evening prayer, we eat a proper dinner.

To address the second concern: no, fasting is not unhealthy. In fact, there is scientific research to vouch for the health benefits of fasting, including improvement in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, risk of diabetes, and insulin sensitivity. Fasting boosts the immune system, regenerating immune cells, and is especially beneficial for protecting against cell damage in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

It also acts as a “reset”. In this culture, we do not know what hunger is; we eat every few hours, consuming more than our recommended calories. However, fasting forces the body to reset hormone levels, which are responsible for telling us when we are hungry. It also stimulates a cleaning and detoxification process – toxins stored in body fat are dissolved and removed. This is beneficial for organs including the liver and kidneys, and can also help clear up acne.

Finally, fasting promotes high levels of endorphins, the “feel good” hormone, which is beneficial for mental health.

Basically, as long as we drinking lots of water at night, there is nothing unhealthy about fasting.


I tend to watch a lot of the Food Network during Ramadan; these days, all I have time for are Tasty videos. There’s a strange satisfaction in looking at food while fasting.

Don’t worry about eating in front of us! We won’t be offended.

Also, halitosis is real. Please forgive us; we haven’t eaten or drank since 4 AM.

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