Rachel Woodlock: An Irish experience of Ramadan in lockdown

Dr Rachel Woodlock says the true value of observing a fasting tradition like Ramadan is to develop a consciousness of God and our fellow human beings
Rachel Woodlock: An Irish experience of Ramadan in lockdown

At prayer during an Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan in the Islamic Information Centre, Shandon Street, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

“Not even water? Fair play to ye” is the response I most often get when my Irish friends find out fasting during Ramadan involves going without food, drink, and bedroom action from dawn to sunset for around 30 days each year. 

I can see the next thought spelled out on their raised eyebrows and wrinkled foreheads: “Jaysus, I’m glad I only have to give up chocolate for Lent.” I accept their mild pity graciously, but Ramadan is actually a time of celebration and excitement among Muslims.

At least it is usually; lockdown has muted the month considerably, as it has with practically every other aspect of life since the coronavirus swept the world. It is difficult to celebrate this year when so many families are missing a beloved granddad, aunt, dad, or daughter, their empty place at the dinner table a reminder of how swift and cruel this pandemic has been.

 Dr Rachel Woodlock.
Dr Rachel Woodlock.

Fasting is certainly not unique to Muslims, and the Koran, Islam’s holy book, tells its audience: “Fasting has been prescribed for you just as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you become righteous.” Jews fast a number of days for repentance, mourning, and gratitude, the most important of which is Yom Kippur. For just over a full day, observant Jews will abstain from food and drink. They won’t brush their teeth, comb their hair, or take a bath.

Buddhist monastics have a variety of ascetic fasting practices, the most well-known of which is vegetarianism and eating a small amount once a day. For some, it involves only eating what is given to them in a begging bowl.

Fishermen break their fast during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, on a boat in a dockyard, in Karachi, Pakistan. Picture: AP
Fishermen break their fast during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, on a boat in a dockyard, in Karachi, Pakistan. Picture: AP

Christian fasting, linked to the liturgical calendar, is for penance and spiritual growth. Those belonging to the Eastern churches give up meat, fish, eggs, dairy, olive oil, and wine. For close to half a year, they follow a pretty healthy vegan diet. For Catholics, the rules have been relaxed from stricter earlier times, which is why fish is served for Ash Wednesday and Friday Lenten dinners and healthy folk don’t eat an hour before taking Communion.

Protestants don’t usually follow an obligated fast, but some will take up personal fasting as a spiritual practice or to raise money for the poor. World Vision’s 30-Hour Famine is probably the most well-known example of this — a charity drive in which Christian fasters seek sponsors to help raise funds for needy kids living in some of the most poverty-stricken parts of the world.

Up before dawn

For Muslims, fasting in Ramadan means getting up before dawn for a breakfast called Suhur. Depending on where you live, it can be very early. This year, where I live in Tipperary, it’s a relatively palatable 4.30am or so, depending on how quickly you can scarf down some scrambled eggs and a strong cup of Barry’s Tea. You do need to choose your breakfast wisely, given there’s no water to quench your thirst for another 16 hours. Crisps, cola, and turkey bacon are not a good idea.

Then it’s time for the first prayers of the day and, for most of us, a couple more hours in bed snoozing, although the devout will stay awake and recite the Koran or meditate.

Although in Muslim-majority countries  Ramadan tends to slow everything in society down, in Ireland it is life as usual so the working day begins, as do the temptations: The smell of morning coffee being made, muffins and biscuits in the break-room, and for the love of God, who is heating up a leftover curry in the microwave for lunch?

One of the few silver linings to the coronavirus cloud has been the opportunity for many of us to work from home. So there have been fewer loud tummy grumblings in office meetings and sheepish “sorry, I’m fasting for Ramadan” explanations. 

A volunteer fills pots with traditional sweet drink to be distributed among people for breaking their fast during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a free food distributing point in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Picture: AP 
A volunteer fills pots with traditional sweet drink to be distributed among people for breaking their fast during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a free food distributing point in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Picture: AP 

At the same time, it seems there’s more awareness than ever from corporate and governmental Ireland, with everyone from the Taoiseach to Enterprise Ireland tweeting Ramadan congratulations. Lubna Sheikh, whose son attends a Catholic primary school, told me the fasting month came up for discussion in his class and neighbours starting wishing her a Happy Eid (albeit a tad early as the festival doesn’t happen until the end).

At University College Cork, where I work, Ramadan (and Christmas and Diwali among others) is always acknowledged by the president, but this year it seems to mean more. The students have found it so difficult during the pandemic. This exciting time of their young adult lives when they would normally be meandering across the Main Quad and loitering around the library has been curtailed to lectures over the Internet. Breaking your fast alone in your bedroom feels so cruel.

An intimate nuclear family affair

Traditionally, at sunset, Muslims will gather together with family and friends to eat a few dates (hence the sudden appearance of cartons of the tasty medjool variety in the supermarkets), sip some water, pray and then tuck into the Iftar dinner. Mosques will often hold large Iftars, opening up the prayer halls to all and sundry, serving plates of steaming jollof rice, lentil curries, eggplant, and chicken stews, lamb tagines — the range of delicacies limited only by the culinary imagination of the community’s cooks and housewives.

But this year there are no communal Iftars, no daily evening prayers in the mosque. Ramadan has become an intimate nuclear family affair, but perhaps that is not altogether a bad thing. As both Ghada Hasan and Zainab El Majdki told me, the fasting month has become more focused and reflective, more in keeping with its original spirit of an intense time of connecting with God and giving charity to those less fortunate. When it comes to recognising our need for closeness to each other, she said: “Covid has brought people back to their senses.”

It seems that deprivation and suffering can serve to quickly remind us of just how truly interdependent we are, whether at the family, national, or even global level. Even the need to get us all vaccinated as quickly as possible requires the cooperation of the entire planet. If developing countries in the global South aren’t able to access the vaccines due to the selfish attitudes of richer nations, more and more variants will surely develop unchecked, threatening the efficacy of the precious vaccines we are hoping will bring us back to normality.

That is, of course, the true value of observing a fasting tradition like Ramadan, Lent, or Yom Kippur: to develop a consciousness of the other, whether that’s God, our fellow human beings, or even just awareness of the footprint we leave on the planet. May the difficulties of this Ramadan help us to have a better one next year.

Dr Rachel Woodlock is an academic and writer who researches and teaches about Islam and Muslims. She is currently an assistant lecturer in the Department of the Study of Religions, University College Cork

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