Why Fasting During Ramadan Isn't Just About Food

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As you may already know, Ramadan isn't just about fasting during the day. However, as one of the more visible forms of celebration, the daytime meal-skipping has become a point of fascination for non-Muslims — and it's not as simple as it seems.
Here are the basics: For the month of Ramadan, which started this past Tuesday, Muslims abstain from eating from just before dawn until the sun sets. There's a pre-dawn meal known as the suhur. And, at sundown, they break their fast with a communal meal called the iftar.
And it's a big deal. While nightly prayers and other forms of celebration play a significant role in Ramadan, too, fasting is actually one of the five pillars of Islam. In other words, fasting is believed to be a key experience for Muslims and foundational to their religious identity. Like we said, fasting isn't the only thing you need to know about Ramadan, but it is very important.
But fasting during Ramadan doesn't just apply to food — and there are a few additional guidelines that you might not know if you don't observe the holiday yourself. Not all of them have to do eating, but they are all meant to facilitate the spiritual reflection and purification that the month of Ramadan is actually all about.
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There's an age limit.

Faryal M. Khatri of the Islamic Society of North America tells us that you're officially of fasting age when you hit puberty (usually around the age of 13 or 14). At that point, you're expected to fast like a regular adult, from sunrise to sunset. That said, it's common for children as young as 7 to practice a limited form of fasting, where they may fast for only half a day, in order to feel more included in the observance of the holiday.
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It isn't just about food.

Drinking anything is off-limits while fasting, Khatri says. It's customary to break the daily fast with water or a yogurt drink, before enjoying the iftar.

Although this isn't an official rule, many Muslims will also avoid smoking as part of their fast. According to NBC News, the choice to stop smoking during Ramadan is a divisive one, because it's not explicitly forbidden. But those who choose to do so may see it as simply staying on the safe side.
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Fasting means curbing all your urges.

Khatri explains that, beyond eating and drinking, people should also avoid behaving badly or immorally during the fast. In other words, try not to swear, lose your temper, or gossip. And, if you're married, you're expected to abstain from sex during daylight hours — that's as non-negotiable as avoiding food and drink.
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There are exemptions for women.

If you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or on your period, you aren't expected to fast. However, a 2012 study found that a majority of pregnant Muslims fasted anyway. The Islamic Society of North America recommends that people who are pregnant, nursing, or menstruating who still wish to observe Ramadan work with their doctors to find a way to do so that's still healthy and safe (some pregnant people will alternate the days they fast, for example).
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Health risks play a role.

Preexisting medical conditions or old age may prevent you from participating in the fast. As with those who are menstruating, nursing, or pregnant, Muslims with conditions such as diabetes should monitor their health closely if they decide to fast.

There may also be exceptional circumstances that make fasting riskier than usual. For instance, during the deadly 2015 heat wave in Pakistan, religious officials stated that people at risk of illness or death may break their fast.
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There are makeup days.

If you're unable to fast during Ramadan, you're expected to fast later — unless you have a chronic condition that makes fasting difficult no matter the time of year. In those cases, Khatri says, people will donate to a cause that feeds the hungry instead.

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