“You can't have anything?”
“Not even water?”
“What if you're really really thirsty and it's super hot outside?”
That's how the typical conversation goes these days when I mention that I'm fasting for the month of Ramadan, which started on the week of July 8 this month and will end around the week of August. It's quickly followed up by a bewildered stare and the words, “You don't eat for a month?!”
After almost ten years of fasting, I'm still repeating the same lines as always when people ask why I'm not eating or why I look so tired. Of course I don't mind educating my peers about Islam but I'm still shocked when someone doesn't know the basics of Ramadan. Imagine if people didn't know when Christmas was, or why it's celebrated and having to explain it to most everyone you met. So without further ado–and since this is the Weekly's food blog–here are the five culinary biggest misconceptions that I've found non-Muslims have about Ramadan
We don't not eat for a month
We fast from suhoor (dawn) to maghrib (sunset) – which in the U.S. equals to 16 hours – and we do this every day for a month. No food, no water, not even gum. Yet believe it or not, Ramadan often involves eating more than you normally would since every meal is much more significant. When you wake up before sunrise for “breakfast,” you know this meal has to hold you over for the next 16 hours. And at the end of those 16 hours, you're rightfully starving, which means food food food.
We also do not stuff our faces the second the fast ends
Your stomach shrinks when you haven't eaten for a long time, so it only takes a little bit of food to fill you up after 16 hours. This is actually sort of unfair, seeing as you're craving a Four-by-Four but at most can fit in a Double-Double. A traditional iftar (dinner) meal is opened with water and a date, followed by a break for the evening prayer. Then we return and share the actual meal (cue the metaphorical stuffing of our faces).
We open our fast at a different time every day
The sun sets a minute or so earlier every day, so this makes sense, no? You're free to wait a few minutes longer but you'll find me spending some quality time with the water jug. The technicalities of this can get complicated, especially if we're going out to eat or watching a movie around sunset.
Not every Muslim has to fast every single day, no matter what
Actually, people who are sick, traveling, or to whom fasting would be physically detrimental (pregnant, diabetic, etc.) are exempt from fasting, as long as they make up the fasts at a later time.
We don't suffer eternal damnation if we break our fast
This depends on if you broke it intentionally or not. It's understandable if you forgetfully ate a sandwich for lunch and this food is seen as a “gift” from God, rather than something you should be punished for. Intentionally breaking your fast is a serious sin and punishments range from feeding a family of 30 to fasting an extra 60 days.
Ramadan is about more than just starving ourselves
The purpose of this month is to break all those bad habits you've picked up over the year and to create a closer relationship with God by praying and reading the Qur'an more often. Not only is food prohibited during these 16 hours, so is swearing, fighting, drugs, sex, etc. Additionally, the rewards for a good deed are multiplied tenfold in this month. Also, fasting serves to remind you of all the people in the world for whom fasting is not a break from the norm. Even having these two meals a day is a privilege, not a right.
The best way to fully understand the purpose of this month is to try keeping a fast yourself. I'm sure it seems like a daunting task (it is) to wake up at 4am, eat as much food as you can fit into your stomach, and then fast for 16 hours, but guess what? It's doable. Just ask your Muslim neighbor or co-worker or classmate who is enduring the same task as you read this. It doesn't have to be a religious experience if you don't want it to be and I guarantee it will be one of the most difficult things you'll ever do. But the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it – and the respect you'll have for everyone living in poverty – totally makes the hunger worth it.