Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims in the UK and across the world, and a time of self-reflection and self-discipline, has begun.
Throughout June, the Civil Service Muslim Network (CSMN) is encouraging its members to share what Ramadan means to them.
"Ramadan highlights a unique opportunity," says Nabeela Rasul, Chair of the CSMN. “In particular, Ramadan can bring people together, especially colleagues in the workplace, of different faiths and none, as shown by Zainab Agha’s account of recent experiences in the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).”
Zainab Agha shares her reflections on the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. (This is an edited version of a post that first appeared in the Diversity blog on the DCLG intranet.)
Ramadan is an important time for the Muslim community. At its core, the month is about giving more and consuming less; patience over instant gratification, reflecting rather than reacting, and thinking of others over ourselves.
To mark the coming of Ramadan, a few colleagues and I brought some calorific goodies into work and sent out a little message to our unit about what the month meant to us. The response was great – a lot of very thoughtful questions, which showed how people value what diversity brings (or at the very least, an appreciation of a snack!).
Most people associate Ramadan with not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. In the UK, this works like a charm when Ramadan comes around in winter, slightly less so when it falls over the longest days of the year.
In the good old days, before sugar became the new poison and bread could be consumed guilt-free, the idea of fasting seemed novel. When I explained the concept to people, I was usually greeted with surprise, tinged with (I like to think) a little awe and respect. Now, the idea of detoxing is so irritatingly fashionable, the reactions are different.
Recently, I was talking about Ramadan to a health-conscious mum on the school-run. I explained that the daily fast was flanked by two big meals, a breakfast called suhoor, and an enormous dinner called iftaar. The content of these meals is culture-specific but, traditionally, milk, dates and copious amounts of water will feature. “So,” she said, “you mean you can eat carbs, fat, gluten and caffeine?” “Yes, yes and yes”, I replied, laughing, “it’s the only time I feel I deserve to eat everything.” “Interesting”, she continued, clearly disappointed by my lack of self control.“I will be doing a juice detox in June for a week. No carbs or fat for me!” My turn to be surprised.
Fasting in this month is not only about not physical abstinence. Equally important is controlling behaviour. As my teachers liked to remind me during my teenage years in Pakistan, you are absolutely not allowed to get the grumps. Ill-advisedly, I shared this with my then 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter last Ramadan. “So you mean you’re not allowed to get angry?” they asked innocently, and proceeded to test this over the next 29 days. “Mum, we’ve been using your phone to take 200 pictures of a dining chair leg, but you can’t get angry. Remember? It’s not allowed,” etc.
That was my hardest Ramadan!
Not all Muslims fast, and it is certainly not recommended for the very young, the very old, the sick or expectant mothers. My husband doesn’t fast, and for this is required to give charity equivalent to three square meals a day. In fact, he pays much more. You see, as I am fasting, and he isn’t, he becomes the go-to parent in the evening by default. Homework duties; nightmare duties; Lego-stuck-in-nose-emergencies, etc., all fall to him. It’s brilliant! By the end of the month I am spiritually and physically refreshed, while he looks completely exhausted.
Time to reflect
There are several other (less calculating) reasons why I love this month:
- it forces me to stop running from work tasks to home ones and pause and reflect on life
- it prompts me to think about lives less fortunate than mine and imagine what it is like to be endlessly hungry and not know where my next meal may come from
- it makes me practice patience - an educational experience in the current culture of instant gratification
What makes fasting at work harder? Answer: embarrassing tummy rumbles at important meetings. There’s also the lack of caffeine to prop you up. Fasting during the summer months can seem very long. And I find that, although our bodies are remarkably adaptable when it comes to food and drink, they are less forgiving when it comes to lack of sleep. And there is definitely interrupted sleep, especially during the last ten nights of the month, which many Muslims may spend in additional prayer. At these times, managers who support flexible working, and colleagues who don’t schedule meetings late in the day, are highly valued.
But there are work benefits as well:
- I find I really value coming into work - the busier the better, as the day passes quicker. Weekends can be more difficult.
- At lunch, I go for a walk. I think this does more for my productivity than a eating a sandwich, slumped over my laptop.
- I find I am ruthlessly pragmatic with myself about what I can do during the day, so I plan and set expectations more effectively. I also get remarkably good at prioritising.
- Most importantly, I become good at listening to others (especially at the end of the day, when my energy levels are low).
There are many other lessons on life and living that Ramadan teaches me. But, like any learning and development activity, the challenge is always making that learning stick throughout the year.