SLICE: Observing Ramadan as a troubled non-Muslim

A religious reawakening was needed after I distanced myself from Catholicism, but I received so much more from Ramadan.

This year I decided to observe Ramadan to seek spiritual clarity to help me cope with the trauma of sexual assault, but after the second week I was struggling as habits of an eating disorder I thought was in remission started to reappear. 

I had a Christian upbringing and always relied on a higher power to rescue me when at my lowest. I attended a Catholic school from grade six, but by my matric year, learning about existentialism in drama class, I became disillusioned.  

I pondered the purpose of all my actions and reflected on life events and experiences that had caused me much pain. Bullying, homophobia and racism at school caused a rift between me and Catholicism. Added to this was the Roman Catholic Church’s disapproval of me and those I love: Myself as a queer woman, and family members and friends who identify as LGBTQIA+. It contradicted a belief my Catholic father had taught me, namely kindness and love for everyone, no matter who they are.  

Lent was something I had partaken of since the age of 11, so Ramadan was easy enough to wrap my head around. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the holiest of months and a compulsory act of the Muslim faith. It is a month of prayer, reflection and fasting to create a stronger relationship with Allah.  

Muslims must fast between sunrise and sunset. They have a meal before dawn (Suhoor or Sehri) and break their fast after sunset (Iftar or Fitoor). I began Ramadan with complete willingness to see the month-long fasting through. I explored the ins and outs, such as the times for Sehri and Iftar, as they change daily according to the sun. I needed to plan meals for both. I was eager to cultivate a relationship with a higher power. Christianity did not work for me; maybe Islam was my calling. At the beginning, the hardest part was waking early enough to pray and eat. Thereafter it was coping with the return of bulimia nervosa.  

If you ask anyone in my life to describe me, an opinion that would come up is ‘‘control freak’’. I was used to having control. It made me feel safe and secure. The feeling of having no control during the sexual assault reintroduced the need for it into every aspect of my life. This retriggered a toxic relationship with food and hunger.  Being able to control when I was hungry and when I was full felt like reclaiming the power I had lost. I did not realise right away that the feeling of satisfaction with hunger was not the spiritual awakening I desperately needed, but rather the reappearance of a demon.  

Bulimia had made me obsessed with ensuring nobody knew what was happening, and when I started to show side effects such as yellowing finger nails and teeth, dry skin or red eyes, I knew I had to take a break. By the second week of Ramadan, my skin was dry and I was more exhausted than the usual university student, yet I still did not realise bulimia had reared its ugly head again.  

Menstruation releases a woman temporarily from religious duties such as prayers and fasting, and requires them to make up the missed days of fasting before the next Ramadan. The beginning of my menstrual cycle could not have come at a better time; I thought I would have some days to rest from fasting and not have to wake up early. After this period of pause I found it difficult to get back on the wagon. I began lying to my family about fasting, hoarding food in my bedroom and never really knowing if I was hungry or not.  

Frustrated and disappointed that I was unable to stay committed during Ramadan, I punished myself by binging and purging, followed by lying and secrecy. Despite the resurfacing of negative feelings towards food, I am grateful for my two weeks of Ramadan. I began the month of fasting hoping to cope with trauma and depression, and while I believe myself far from “recovery”, I feel it has set me on the right path. I have learned the value of discipline, kindness and being grateful for what I have.  

I think I needed to fail at observing Ramadan to see how much I need to put into healing; that religion and faith are not a quick fix. I am now committed to really healing and forgiving myself. I am uncertain of the steps to take to get where I want to be, but I know it is up to me.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Kemiso Wessie. Photo: File

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Ramadan: A time to reflect and fast

By Nomatter Ndebele and Pheladi Sethusa 

For Muslims all over the world Ramadan is a time of sacrifice and reflection.

What is Ramadan?

Anwar Jhetam from the   Muslim Students Association said Ramadan marks the ninth month in the Islamic calendar.

This is the month in which it is believed  the holy Qu’ran was revealed, said Jhetam.

“It is a month of fasting and increased worship to develop a closer relationship with God.   Ramadan is a month of reflection and self development,” he said.

During this month Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and abstain from “food, drink and sex with one’s spouse”, said Jhetam.  The fast is broken after dusk at which point people are allowed to indulge in the above.

Students and fasting 

While the rest of the students go about their day, munching this and that, Muslim students have to wake up before sunrise to have breakfast and fast throughout the day until about 5.30pm.

Romy Dasoo, 1st year Engineering, said she is finding fasting while attending university very difficult.

Allahu Akbar: Muslim students  pictured at the University of Johannesburg, reciting a sunset prayer before breaking fast on Tuesday evening. The Wits and UJ Muslim student associations broke their fast together at a Ramadan Iftar dinner.            Photo: Caro Malherbe

Allahu Akbar: Muslim students pictured at the University of Johannesburg, reciting a sunset prayer before breaking fast on Tuesday evening. The Wits and UJ Muslim student associations broke their fast together at a Ramadan Iftar dinner. Photo: Caro Malherbe

She has class from 8am to 5pm. “I end up breaking fast later, due to traffic,” she said.

Third year physiology student, Imraan Ballim, said: “Apart from the weird gastric sounds, it’s quite cool.”

Ballim believes the month of Ramadan is a very spiritual experience. “You engage more with religion and what it means,” said Ballim.

He also believes the introspection aspect of the fast makes it worthwhile. [pullquote align=”right”]”It becomes easier with time as you aren’t distracted by having to eat or drink”[/pullquote]

Dasoo wishes she was more spiritual because the month would mean more to her and added that she admires students who are very spiritual.

Many students are quite aware of the difficulty of having to concentrate on an empty stomach.

Ballim agreed the first few days are difficult but said it becomes easier with time as you aren’t distracted by having to eat or drink.

Shared experience

Many Muslim students also get together to pray in the afternoon.

Ballim said this is a “nice experience because everyone gets together” and shares in the religion. Breaking fast is another good experience, as people gather with their families to feast on food they have been wilfully avoiding all day.

Special concessions are made for pregnant women, children, the sick and people who will be travelling at the time.

“They are permitted to abstain from the fast and can fast at a later date,” said Jhetam.

“At the heart of the fast is drawing closer to God during this special time,” he added, saying that students should use this time to develop character traits and habits that they will carry with them long after this religious period is over.

‘Fast’ food

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BREAK FAST: Students from UJ and Wits get ready to break their fast together. Photo: Caro Malherbe

The Wits and UJ Muslim student associations broke their fast together at a Ramadan Iftar dinner at UJ on Tuesday.

The room was full of excitement as the students sat cross-legged on the floor, set with eating utensils.

Ramadan

Ramadan is a month of celebration for Muslims; it is the month the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad, bestowed on him to spread the word of Islam. Muslims come together for worship and fast from sunrise to sunset every day for 30 days.

Zain Patel, chairperson of Wits Muslim Student Association (MSA), said: “Fasting means that we can’t eat or drink anything during that time. Not even water, basically nothing can pass our lips.”

Students praying before they break fast.            Photo: Caro Malherbe

Students praying before they break fast. Photo: Caro Malherbe

The Muslim men and women sat separately from one another, divided by a barricade of tables and screens.

Ibrahim Patel said the Dua is a prayer recited just before the sun sets. “It stresses the need for self-cleansing and purity of the soul. It is also to thank God for your blessings and to ask for forgiveness and to renew your personal relationship with Him.”

After the Dua was said, the Adhaan, or The Call, was done by Maseehullah Suleman. This  signals that the fast may be broken, and people may eat.

The fast is traditionally broken with small sweet dates as that is what the prophet Mohammad ate when he broke fast. The MSA committee paid for a generous meal of  chicken hot wings, sliders and pizza. Juice, soda and milkshakes were served.

The decision to combine Iftar with UJ was for Muslims from both universities to socialise with each other and gain spiritual support during Ramadan.

Iftar at UJ

Guest speaker, Ibrahim Fakude who opened the event, said there are many reasons why Muslims fast. Some fast to lose weight, some to please Allah and some just to cut bad habits, “but if you fast for these reasons, don’t expect to get the same fawaad [reward]”.

“The reason Muslims should fast is to change for the better. It is to practise self-restraint, to contribute to the welfare of society and to be charitable.

Fasting

Fasting during Ramadan is also a time to deepen one’s spiritual relationship with God and to strive to be the embodiment of Islam,” said Naadira Pahad, an MSA member.

“Nobody will know if you lock yourself in your room and eat when you are supposed to be fasting.  Fasting is really something that is between yourself and God,” said Pahad.

Ramadan started on 9 July and will end on Wednesday, 7 August. To mark the end of Ramadan Muslim families will rejoice Eid ul-Fitr. Much like Christmas, Eid ul-Fitr is a time of great celebration and religious practices, where gifts are given and there is an abundance of food.

Ramadan: The month of fasting

Wits lawns may be a more subdued place next week, with less hubblies bubbling and coloured with more girls covered in head scarves, as the Muslim students enter their fasting month.

Next week marks the beginning of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking, intimacy and intercourse, from before the break of dawn until sunset.

Saum (fasting) is one of the five pillars of Islam that is obligatory for every responsible and fit Muslim. This month of fasting is a unique moral and spiritual characteristic of Islam.

In a different routine, Muslims wake up at pre-dawn (4.30 am) to partake in the early morning meal called Suhur.

Iftaar (the sunset meal) is the time of day that most look forward to, not only because one can indulge in the many delicacies that are synonymous with Ramadan but also because it is the time of day when the prayer of a fasting person is said to be answered.

Fasting is not just a test on the body but also of the mind and soul. One doesn’t just abstain from food and liquids but from seeing, hearing and doing evil as well. A fasting Muslim is taught how to practise self-restraint, patience as well as appreciation in this month.

Muslims break their fast with dates and water, along with a variety of different snacks and savouries.

The fasting day does not end at sunset, but continues to additional night time prayers (Taraweeh) that are read after the fifth compulsory daily prayers.

This month is also special as it is the month when Islam’s Holy book (the Quraan) was revealed. A lot of emphasis is placed on reciting as much of the Quraan as possible during this month.

Ramadan lasts 29 or 30 days depending on the moon’s position and ends with the feast on the Islamic holiday of Eid ul-Fitr.