explainer

"Wait... not even water?" The 9 questions I get asked every year about Ramadan, answered.

We are now nearly halfway through Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. While Islam is a religion practiced by 1.8 billion people around the world, many Australians don’t know a whole lot about how this month works, or why Muslims do it. 

And when non-Muslims hear Muslims go from before sunrise until dusk without any food or drink for a whole month as a religious discipline, the response is often shocked silence, followed by a barrage of questions. 

Having fasted Ramadan more than twenty times, I’ve answered a lot of questions, so here are some of the most common ones I get that you, too, might have wondered:

1. Can you drink water?

Nope, not even water. In fact, I get asked “What – not even water?!” in stunned tones by non-Muslims so often, I might put that on a t-shirt as a pre-emptive answer. 

Not. Even.  

It really is a genuine fast from before sunrise to after sunset, but once dusk hits, we can eat and drink as much as we want. The no-water thing can be challenging, especially if Ramadan falls in the summer months (more about that below), but so long as you're sensible about it and make sure you have lots of water during the night and early morning before you start fasting, it’s fine.

2. How do you feel by the afternoon?

By mid-afternoon I have what’s called Fasting Brain. I feel a bit foggy. For this reason, I am very partial to a Ramadan nap. I get sleepy when fasting – probably a combination of getting up very early (about 4:30am for us in Melbourne) to have a meal before starting our fast, and not having food or caffeine during the day to keep me firing. What I lose in brain-power in the mid-afternoon, I make up for in the very early morning, so I will often move my work day around, and start work really early (6am) so by the time my mental faculties start to fade, I’ve done a full day of work anyway. 

ADVERTISEMENT

3. What happens if someone is pregnant? Or has a chronic illness?

Fasting should only ever be done by healthy adults, so there are a number of people who do not have to fast, and even should not fast. 

For example, if fasting would be dangerous to someone’s health, or they need to take medication during daylight hours to stay physically or mentally well, they should not be fasting. They can discuss with their health care provider the best way to approach it, but there are clear exemptions in Islam for people not to fast due to health concerns, and there should be no stigma about this, as Muslims believe the exemption from fasting is divinely mandated! This also includes pregnant and breastfeeding women – if they fear that fasting will endanger them or their baby in any way, they should not fast. Fasting is tough, but it should never be dangerous.

Listen to Mia Freedman's No Filter interview with Susan Carland. Post continues below. 

4. Have you ever... cheated?

I’ve never intentionally cheated. Occasionally I might forget I’m fasting and have a sip of water or lick a spoon when I’m cooking and then freeze, remembering I’m fasting. But religiously that’s no problem; if we eat or drink from genuinely forgetting we’re fasting, it doesn’t count.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the thing about cheating is, who am I cheating? No one is putting a gun to my head in Ramadan and if I really wanted to, I could hide in a cupboard or my car and stuff myself. I’m fasting because I want to and believe in the practice. So, I could sneak a cookie, but the only person impacted would be me. It would be like surreptitiously getting into a car mid-marathon and driving half the distance. No one else would know I didn’t do the full marathon, but the whole point of doing it is for your own sense of satisfaction and achievement. 

5. Do you still exercise?

Outside of Ramadan, I’m at the gym five times a week. In Ramadan, I’m a sloth. I know other Muslims who still run or train and they workout either right before they break their fast, or later at night. Good on them, but I am not one of them.

6. Why do the dates change every year?

Muslims follow the lunar calendar, so Ramadan shifts about 11 days earlier each year. This is handy, as it means nowhere in the world is permanently stuck with the long, hot days of summer fasting.

7. Is anything else given up during Ramadan?

Ok, adult talk: we are also not to have sex in Ramadan during the same hours we are not allowed to eat or drink (ie, pre-dawn till dusk). But, like eating and drinking, we can indulge when it’s dark.

Beyond fasting from our basic desires, we’re also supposed to improve our general state. While back-stabbing and being an angry jerk are never okay Islamically (or to most people), in Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to be even more aware of our behaviour and work to control and better ourselves. And this aspect of self-improvement is actually the more important part of Ramadan; there’s a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that “God has no need of your hunger and thirst”, meaning if all we get out of Ramadan is hunger and thirst, the month is wasted. Fasting is the vehicle to being better, kinder, more generous people, not the end-point in and of itself. 

Because if I can control my anger at the guy who cuts me off in traffic or refrain from gossiping about my annoying colleague while I’m hangry and tired in Ramadan, I know I can also do it outside of Ramadan when I’m not under physical stress. Ramadan is something of a spiritual pressurised environment that is designed to refined people. 

8. What does a typical day look like during Ramadan?

4:40am: Get up, eat before we start fasting (for me, normally eggs and oats and avocado. Also: heaps of coffee).

5:30am: First prayers, read Qur’an etc.

6:00am: Work.

12:30pm: Midday prayers, then more work.

2pm: I often nod off here. Just being honest.

ADVERTISEMENT

3:30pm: Afternoon prayers.

4:00pm: Prepare food for iftar (the fast-breaking meal) while listening to podcasts.

5:45pm: Iftar with the family! Coffee! Then evening prayers.

7:15pm: Night prayers, then extra prayers we do in Ramadan called Tarawih. 

8:00pm: Tidy up, read, chat with family.

10:00pm: Bed.

9. What can I do to be most respectful during Ramadan?

Such a lovely question! First of all, please do not worry about eating or drinking in front of Muslims when we’re fasting – it honestly does not bother us. But if you do see a Muslim eating, don’t say “Hey, aren’t you meant to be fasting?” They may have a private medical reason they can’t fast which they don’t want to talk about. Also, there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, and like every religious tradition, not everyone practices their faith to the same extent. 

If you have any flexibility in your workplace, see if you can let your Muslim colleagues start and finish their days a bit earlier. And try not to schedule late meetings that might happen over sunset when Muslims need to break their fast. But if these things can’t happen, don’t be worried; we are meant to still be living our lives in Ramadan and we know not everything can change for us. All Muslims have stories of the funny times they’ve had to break their fast (in final exams, during ad breaks while on live TV shows, in the middle of teaching a class or presentation, on the sports field). If you do have to work or study late with a Muslim colleague, having some dates for them to break their fast (the traditional fast-breaking food) would be awesome. 

ADVERTISEMENT

If you want to say something to a Muslim in Ramadan, “Happy Ramadan” is great. Or if you want to get extra-fancy, you can say “Ramadan Kareem” (have a generous Ramadan) or “Ramadan Mubarak” (said: moo-BAR-ak, which means have a blessed Ramadan). Any of these are fine and would be gratefully received by the Muslim in your life. 

Lastly, if you have a Muslim friend or colleague fasting Ramadan, try not to always focus on what you see as the unpleasant or hard parts of Ramadan, as generally, Muslims love Ramadan. It’s a time of spiritual renewal, improving ourselves, and connection to community. Always having people say to us, “Oh my God, that sounds SO AWFUL! I could never do that!! How do you survive?!” only frames it in the negative, and it’s so much more than that for us. Instead, feel free to ask us questions about it, or comment on our strength and commitment, or wish us well for the month. 

Or just say “Happy Ramadan! Here’s a date to eat for later”.

You can follow Susan Carland on Instagram @susancarland or on Twitter @SusanCarland

Feature Image: @susancarland Instagram.

Like a $50 gift voucher for your thoughts? For your chance, take our quick survey .
MMSurvey