I wouldn't say I'm a bad Muslim. I wouldn't say I'm a particularly good one. I'm not so sure you can even say either of those things about someone that follows Islam. There's a sense that, simply put, you are or you aren’t a Muslim. But what about someone that's a ‘bad’ Muslim for 11 months of the year and then tops up on God points for 30 days during Ramadan? That’s the category I’d fall into.
Still, I identify as Muslim. I am Muslim – albeit a sinful one for most of the year, during which I'll overindulge without a second thought: eat and drink what and when I want, stay up all night, live the life of a heathen. Then for one month I'll be on lockdown: eating well, no boozing, early nights, working hard, thinking pure thoughts. It is genuinely my favourite time of the year and I always look forward to it.
So why not live like this for the rest of the year? Because I love being a heathen, too. Trying to reconcile the two can prove a pretty futile exercise. It's feast or famine for me. It follows that Ramadan is a perfect fit for my particular brand of Islam.
As a child, beyond learning (and quickly forgetting) how to read Arabic and how to pray, the lessons of Islam taught me that I shouldn’t lie, cheat or hurt anyone, and to be always helpful, thoughtful, kind and generous. Nothing revelatory there, just being a decent person really. Most Muslims will tell you that Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is observed by followers of Islam to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran (it is telling that I had to Wikipedia that, just to check). I observed Ramadan diligently throughout my teens, but without really knowing why I was doing it. During university and for a few years after, it became more an obstruction to the kind of carefree (read: hedonistic) lifestyle I wanted to lead, so it fell by the wayside.
So why go back to it, as I did nearly 10 years ago? [I’m now 33.] Most of my Muslim friends who live a similar kind of lifestyle to me – let’s call ourselves casual or non-practising Muslims – never went back to fasting once they stopped. But seeing how much other people, particularly in my family, got out of Ramadan made me rethink things.
Perhaps it was the sheer novelty of the idea. The excuse to detox. To shut up shop (it’s the perfect excuse to not turn up to things). Life can be unrelenting and there comes a point – sometimes several points – during the year when you need to hit the reset button on your body and mind. Ramadan provides that opportunity for me. While starving yourself during daylight hours for a month is a pretty extreme way of doing this, moderation isn’t for everyone. I’ve never been a one-glass-of-wine-with-dinner type of person.
It becomes obvious that Ramadan is not about the hunger or thirst at all. Having the excuse to see my family, and eating with them at sundown, is something I cherish and genuinely look forward to. How many are fortunate enough to say that?
Admittedly, for the first few days of Ramadan, without food, drink (yes, even water) and nicotine to regulate my mood during the day, I can be a bit of a nightmare. But after getting over myself, the immediate benefits become clear. By the end of the first week I’m flying. Without the distraction of food comas or hangovers, I find myself more alert and able to focus for longer stretches. The hours sat at my desk pass quickly as I throw myself into my work with vigour and a renewed discipline.
As we go further into the month, other benefits emerge. For one, it makes you realise when you do actually want a drink/fag/something to eat rather than doing it out of habit or boredom. It’s a small reminder of what hunger or thirst might actually feel like. Some of my non-Muslim friends identify with this and like to share the experience, so, in solidarity as much as curiosity, they fast with me for a few days and/or give up one of their vices for the month.
I enjoy the discipline – or rather, proving to myself that I can have the discipline to go without – even if it is for just a month of daytimes. It is the main lesson I try, and usually fail, to apply to my life for the rest of the year: that you don’t need to be a slave to your appetites; that in truth, you don’t need that much to get by. Not that life is about just getting by, but that’s something for another day.
Towards the end of the month, with nearly 30 days of clear(er) thinking in the bank, it becomes obvious that Ramadan is not about the hunger or thirst at all. My favourite thing about Ramadan, and one of the things that made me start fasting again in my mid-twenties, was seeing how it brought family and friends together each day. Having the excuse and making the effort to see my large extended family, and eating with them at sundown, is something I cherish. Every day there is genuinely something to look forward to. How many are fortunate enough to say that? And what I’m most anticipating on Eid isn’t being able to stuff my face during the day, or going to meet my friends for a drink afterwards – it’s seeing my family all together.
For me, Ramadan serves as a reminder to do things that I should already be doing throughout the year. To be kind, to help people out. I shouldn’t need a month of fasting to be reminded of this, but it does help. It is carrying out, or at least trying to carry out, these lessons for the rest of the year that forms a large part of my identity as a Muslim, despite other people’s assumptions of what a Muslim is or should be. And in the current political climate, with some idiots-calling-themselves-Muslims preying on the softest of soft targets with increasing regularity, it does make you rethink your own relationship to your religion and the expectations that go with it.
I don’t believe that abstaining from alcohol for a month makes me any more of a Muslim. Nor do I believe that boozing for 11 months makes me any less of one. Granted, it may make me a sinful one, but if that’s the case, it’s just one of many I carry. A drop in the ocean that God will sift through one day. In the meantime, I will try and heed the lessons of Ramadan as best I can, take some goodness, some light into the rest of the year, and spread love (it’s the Muslim way).