Common misconceptions about Ramadan
Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, is back, and as well as gearing up for thirty days of worship and self-restraint, many Muslims will be mentally preparing themselves for the deluge of well intentioned questions and thoughts from their non-Muslim colleagues, friends and neighbours about what fasting is all about.
The internet and social media is full of information, but not all of it is correct, which means that there are a lot of misconceptions about the month of Ramadan. Here are the most common ones:
It's not safe to fast
A big misconception about fasting is that it's not safe, and, as well intentioned as it might be, most Muslims find this very condescending. Yes, during the long, hot summer days, fasting can be difficult, and if someone feels unwell they can break the fast, but for the other billion plus Muslims who haven't yet fainted or ended up in hospital, it's completely fine. There are also exemptions: new mothers, the elderly, chronically ill and pregnant aren't expected to fast if it poses a risk to their health.
You can overindulge at iftar
Most people assume that after 16+ hours without food or drink they could eat a ten course feast, but the reality is that by the time iftar (the meal to break the fast) comes around we aren't as hungry as we thought.
You should have a big meal for suhur
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Muslims indulge in a huge feast for suhur (the meal that opens the fast, just before sunrise). Growing up I wrongly believed that to be able to fast with ease I had to eat a full meal before the sun rose. I'd see family members fill up their stomachs with platefuls of rice and two or three curries, and thought that was the norm, while ignoring the nauseous feeling I got from eating something so rich in the middle of the night.
For a minority of Muslims this might be okay, but for most of us a simple meal consisting of cereal, eggs and fruit will suffice.
Muslims fast to empathise with the poor
Although learning about hardships of the poor is part of why Muslims fast, it's not the main goal of Ramadan. Fasting was ordained on Muslims to help them gain greater 'taqwa' (God-consciousness). The understanding is that once you take away a basic necessity (food and drink) you are able to concentrate fully on worship and gratitude towards God.
Fasting involves refraining from food and drink
Everyone knows that Ramadan involves not eating and drinking during the day but there is so much more to this holy month. Muslims are also instructed to refrain from sexual relations, arguments and lying and backbiting during this time in order to become closer to God and improve their character. By not adhering to these conditions Muslims won't reap the full benefits of Ramadan, they are merely starving themselves.
You can't brush your teeth
There are several schools of thought regarding brushing your teeth when fasting, but that doesn't mean we abandon good hygiene completely. One option is to use the 'miswak,' a twig taken from the Arak tree that naturally cleans the teeth and freshens the breath.
Unless you wish to err on the side of caution, brushing your teeth and practising good hygiene is fine, as long as you don't devour an entire tube of Colgate.
It's a great time to start that weight loss plan
Losing weight isn't the main goal of Ramadan, although most of us secretly hope it will help shed some extra pounds. In order to effectively lose weight you need to decrease the amount of calories you consume per day, and when you consider that most of us eat the equivalent of a day's calorie consumption for iftar and suhur, losing weight is unlikely. In fact, most people will put on weight during Ramadan, as they are consuming large meals so close to bedtime. And even if you are careful about what you eat, fasting is only a short term solution to weight loss that won't last past Eid.
Sami Rahman is a freelance writer based in London.
Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman