This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
The rules are strict: no eating, drinking or smoking from dawn until sunset, at which point you’re allowed to break your fast. To many practising Muslims, Ramadan represents a chance to focus on what matters in life, without any distractions.
Just like anything that has to do with spirituality, Ramadan is a very individual experience. We asked three young Muslims who participate in the tradition how it benefits them.
Tawsen, 24, musical artist
I’ve been observing Ramadan since I was very little. My family has always practised the tradition, so I tried it out when I was a kid, but I only started observing it in full around the age of 13 or 14. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam [together with faith, prayer, charity and making the pilgrimage to Mecca]. I fast because you’re supposed to do it as a Muslim, but also because I like the unique ambience that comes with Ramadan. And you can’t really experience it without fasting.
A lot of people who don’t celebrate Ramadan make stupid jokes, telling you to look at them while they eat ice cream – that sort of thing. But actually, Ramadan is also about trying to be a better person – you’re supposed to be kind to people, not to get angry, not to eat too much and to share what you have with those less fortunate than you.
Personally, I look at Ramadan as a period of contemplation. It empties out my mind, it helps me focus on myself and my religion.
Fatima, 19, communications student and hip-hop singer
I don’t remember much about the first time I observed Ramadan, but I think I must have been around seven. I wanted to do what the grown-ups were doing, but at the time I didn’t actually understand what the point was.
[Back then], my mum allowed me to break my fast before everyone else, around noon. Then, when I was about 13 or 14, I started to participate for real. At that point, I had a better understanding of my religion and I was learning what spirituality meant to me.
[As a young teen], I had many existential questions. When that first Ramadan that I fully observed came around, I felt I was finally going to get some answers. I was particularly excited about the Night of Destiny [also known as Laylat al-Qadr, a sacred night that commemorates the Qur’an being revealed to the Prophet Muhammad]. I spent that night confiding in God. All of the pain that had built up inside me during that year began to fade away.
During Ramadan, I feel like I’m more in touch with myself, that I’m finally able to focus on what really matters. It’s like taking a step back from the rest of the world, like meditating for a whole month. I cherish this time, because we live in a society where we’re always on the go and our heads are busy with so many thoughts and ideas. I think Ramadan allows you to see things more clearly. It’s both a stress reliever and an antidepressant.
I’m always amused when non-Muslims ask me questions about Ramadan, because they’re often the same – “If you swallow your saliva, does that mean you’ve broken your fast?” “How do you fast all day?! I could never do that!” “Can you at least chew gum?” “Do you have to be really careful when you brush your teeth?”
People assume Ramadan is just this rigid set of rules, but for me, it’s all about self-control. It’s about proving to yourself you can take a step back from things that don’t matter.
Fatima-Zohra, 25, activist and documentary filmmaker
I don’t remember when I first celebrated Ramadan in full, but I’ve always wanted to do it since I was little, so my parents let me fast half-days after school. I wanted to be like the grown-ups – plus, my cousins and I had a little competition going on; we’d try to do as many days as possible. I think we were mostly interested in being there with the rest of the family when they broke their fast.
From the outside, people only think about the fasting aspect. But that’s actually the easiest part of Ramadan, unless you’re addicted to smoking or something. That said, I do like it when non-Muslims ask about Ramadan. It means they’re interested, and it’s cool to talk about it with them.
One of my favourite moments is the Night of Destiny, because you pray together with your family and find new ways to express your spirituality. Usually, you also go to the mosque to pray, but of course that’s not possible at the moment.
I know this might sound cliché, since a lot of people say it, but this month really recharges my batteries. There’s a before Ramadan and an after Ramadan. There’s no better time to focus on your spirituality and your relationship with God. And it’s also nice to hear positive and caring sentiments, like, “It’s Ramadan – don’t argue,” or, “May God guide you.”
Ramadan is a time of generosity and of being close to your family. Spending that much time together makes you realise what you should do after the month is over, too. Basically, Ramadan reminds me of what is most important to me – my family, my health, my faith and living in accordance with my values.