Ramadan 2013: Fasting for the body, food for the soul - and how Muslim life in Britain has changed

Non-Muslims used to regard Ramadan with suspicion. As she begins the annual ritual, Arifa Akbar explains how its lessons in empathy and abstinence can benefit us all

Ramadan in Britain during the early Eighties, when I was growing up, 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.

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.

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. The channel called it a deliberately "provocative" act that would, it hoped, challenge prejudices that link Islam to extremism.

It is not just Ramadan that has received a PR boost in recent times but fasting itself. In the early days of fasting – at school and then at university – I was often warned by well-wishers of the danger I might be putting my body under and that abstaining from eating and drinking water for long hours could do me harm.

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, and in which he fasted two days out of every week (living on 600 calories during his fasting days) spawned the popularity of the 5:2 diet. Dr Mosley 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. Researchers at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore found evidence that a severe reduction of calorie intake for one or two days a week could protect the brain from the most detrimental effects of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Aside from the health benefits, there are ethical reasons for fasting, too, even for the most irreligious amongst us. Steven Poole, in his book, You Aren't What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture, argues compellingly against the recent explosion of "foodie culture" in Britain, in which food has become a self-indulgent, status-bound and profligate middle-class pastime.

Celebrity chefs are now worshipped, he says, and people post pictures of their meals on Facebook. "Western civilisation is eating itself stupid," Poole writes. "The literary and visual rhetoric of food in our culture has become decoupled from any reasonable concern for nutrition or environment."

It is naïve to think that a few hours of abstinence will harm the majority of the overweight population in the West, though of course, those with certain ailments such as heart conditions or diabetes should avoid fasting on medical grounds (and are exempt from the obligation of Ramadan). After all, hundreds of thousands of people across the world have access to only one meal at best, and limited water, yet they live on.

Mohammed Shafiq, founding member of the Ramadhan Foundation, believes that the persistent hunger and weakness of religious fasting may slow us down but it also increases our compassion for those who have been weakened physically in some way. "During Ramadan, you understand how someone feels when they live in a place with no food or water."

In this sense, there are gains to be made for the soul and its expanded capacity for empathy. Fasting leads us to think about our bodies, their dependencies and their frailties, as well as those of our fellow men and women. And that's not a bad thing.

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.

Josh O'Neill

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