Thursday, 18 September 2008

Another experience of fasting elswhere

In the previous post, I described the experience of the holy month of Ramadhan while working in the United Arab Emirates two years ago.

My other experience of fasting while away from Malaysia was very, very much earlier. That was the time when I was a student in the United Kingdom in the early '80s. As most of you probably know, the daylight hours in temperate countries change with the seasons, being longest in the summer and shortest in the winter.

Fasting is the ritual where we primarily abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours. In tropical countries like Malaysia, days and nights are of almost equal duration. Hence the hours of fasting is almost constant. But in my final year in Sheffield, the Muslim month of Ramadhan occurred during the summer season. I remember that first light of dawn was around 2.30am while sunset was around 9.30pm. That works out to a daylight (and therefore a fasting) duration of about 19 hours. At first, the thought of fasting for 19 hours was a bit daunting. Fasting is however, also a form of mental training to enhance our tolerance to difficulties and improve our level of patience.

For the first few days, it was quite difficult but after some time, I got used to it and it became routine. Although the daylight duration was long, the warm English summer is not humid like in Malaysia. The dry air is not energy-sapping and since we do not sweat as much, we didn't feel that thirsty.

Another thing that helped was that our classes were already over and basically, we had free time. The lazy summer days were spent watching sports on TV, playing cards or board games, or just simply dozing off. Sometimes, me and my friends would take a leisurely walk around town to kill time but I didn't like to do this often. It was a bit difficult not to look at the so many pretty English lasses in short and thin summer dresses ;-)

There was this one time when we were really bored... so I suggested that we go to the public park and have a game of football. My friends initially thought it was crazy to be playing football while we were fasting but we decided to try it out anyway. So we trudged down to the park at around 7pm, had a kick-about with the ball for an hour or so, and returned to our house with ample time to shower and then prepare our iftar meal. Surprisingly, it wasn't that tiring and so we continued to play soccer on subsequent evenings as long as there were enough guys who wanted to do so.

I stayed at a rented flat with two other Malay students. Two other friends rented the flat below us. The five of us pooled funds so that we shared meals together. At least, the breaking of fast was not a lonely affair. Our iftar meals were simple home-cooked dishes but had variety because each of us hail from different parts of Malaysia. I'm a Johorean while my housemates Karim and Yusof come from Negeri Sembilan and Kelantan respectively. Azhar and Amir, our friends from the flat below are from Slim River and Ipoh. One thing's for sure, our meals were always fun and lively.

In Malaysia, the indication that the fast can be broken is normally the azan (call for prayer) for Maghrib (sunset) that can be heard from the national radio or TV, or directly heard from a mosque if you live near one. In the UK, the local newspapers publish the daily sunset and sunrise times. We referred to this as a guide for our start and break of fast times. Actually, the commencement of fast is the first light of dawn (fajar), which is earlier than sunrise. We therefore had to make allowance for this interval and make sure we have our sahur (pre-dawn) meal well before first light. Another reference that we used was a booklet containing the prayer times for major towns and cities in the UK. Nowadays, you can just go online and check the many websites that provide prayer times for almost every significant town in the British Isles or even almost anywhere in the world.

As noted earlier, the nights during summer are short so there was hardly much time to catch any sleep between iftar and sahur. The sahur meal would be quite light since we had the heavier iftar meal just a few hours ago.

While Ramadhan during the summer months would result in a very long fasting day, the reverse is true when Ramadhan falls during winter. The sun sets around 4pm in winter, meaning a very short fasting day. While it may seem that the short duration would make the fast easier, the cold weather makes us feel hungry more quickly.

Presently, it is autumn in the UK now. A check with a prayer-times website show that Maghrib for the city of Sheffield today is at 7.18pm, about the same time as Kuala Lumpur.

This cycle of Ramadhan falling at different seasons every year, happen because the Islamic calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar by about 11 days. Each year, a day in the Islamic calendar moves forward 11 days relative to the Gregorian calendar (see sub-story below). The 1st day of Ramadhan this year falls on 1st September. In six years, the 1st day of Ramadhan would fall around the last week of June. At that time, Muslims in the northern temperate countries would be fasting during the summer months.

Now... this brings us to the interesting possibility of the situation where a Muslim who is located somewhere where the sun does not set for days on end (e.g. above the Artic Circle) during the month of Ramadhan. How does he break his fast when the sun doesn't set? Does he fast the whole duration of daylight hours or does he not fast at all? Trivial questions they may be, but interesting nonetheless.

The Islamic Calendar

The Islamic or Muslim Calendar is a lunar-based calendar. It is made up of 12 months in a year and each year has about 354 days. This makes the Islamic year about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian year.

Efforts to formalise an Islamic calender was initiated by Caliph Umar. Upon consultation with his fellow companions, they chose the Hijrah event (Prophet Muhammad's migration from Makkah to Madinah) to mark the start of the Muslim year. That is why the Islamic calendar is also known as the Hijrah calendar. The present year is 1429 AH.

The twelve months in the Hijrah year are as follows :

1. Muharram
2. Safar
3. Rabiul-awal
4. Rabiul-akhir
5. Jamadil-awal
6. Jamadil-akhir
7. Rejab
8. Sya'aban
9. Ramadhan
10. Syawal
11. Zulkaedah
12. Zulhijjah

Because the Hijrah year is shorter than the Gregorian year by about 11 days, there would be times when the Hijrah year occur entirely within the Gregorian year. This year of 2008 AD is one such occurrence. To check this, have a look at a calendar that displays both Islamic and Gregorian dates. If you don't have this type of calendar, a standard Gregorian one would do as long as it highlights the Malaysian public holidays.

The 1st of Muharram 1429 AH (officially known as the Maal Hijrah holiday) fell on 10 January 2008. Have a look at the month of December and you can see that another 1st of Muharram holiday, this time for 1430 AH, falls on the 29th. In other words, 1429 AH sits between 10.01.08 and 28.12.08.


Nurie said...

When I was in sheffield in the
90s, fasting month falls during the fall season. So our fasting days were short :-)

Your post really bring back good memories of my fasting days back then...thank you!

Salute you all la, fasting for 19hrs per day is a big dugaan!

Fauziah Ismail said...

Salam Oldstock
I had the opportunity of fasting during winter at the end of my Cambridge fellowship in the UK in 1998.
I spent the final week of my UK stay in London. On most days, I was still contemplating what to cook when it was already time to break fast!
So, I ended up cooking after breaking fast instead.
But the cold can also make you extra hungry.

Oldstock said...

-> Nurie, dugaan lapar tu tak berapa sangat. Dugaan mata tu yang lebih mencabar! Hahaha...

-> Fauziah, I'm sure it was quite fun fasting during winter. Rasa macam sekejap sangat. Kami dulu buat puasa sunat je time winter, itu pun bagi yg rajin la.

masterwordsmith said...

Hello Oldstock


I left a comment here yesterday but I think I forgot to publish it. I just want to say thanks for this nostalgically written article. Your reflections are very sincere and touching because it opens a window into the life of a Muslim fasting during the holy month of Ramadhan.

Selamat berpuasa to you and your family.

Thanks ;)

Oldstock said...


Glad that you liked my post. Hope to write more soon but the fasting month this year seems to be a bit busier than usual.

Thanks for dropping by.