Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What's in a fast?

It's the 9th month of the Islamic Lunar calendar, which is not only of much significance to my fellow Muslim friends, but also to me. It's Ramadan, or popularly known as Ramzan, one of my favorite festivals of the year, solely for gastronomical reasons.

Enter Mohammad Ali Road post daylight, and what you see is a feast for your eyes, literally. The shimmering reds of Chicken Reshmi Kababs, Chicken 65s, Shawarmas, and Chicken Lahoris will sweep you off your feet. And if you suffer from a sweet tooth like me, you've landed at the right spot where pure cow’s milk and sugar come together to form a beautiful union in the form of Malpuwa, Barfis, Faloodas and the milkiest of Firnis. And the ageing Kulfi-walla who sells Kulfi in flavours like Strawberry, Pista, Mango Raspberry, Banana and of course Badam-Kesar in his little square-shaped tin containers.

Enough has been seen and written about the fantastic banquet of food that we all get to tuck into during the holy festival. But what not too many people are aware about is the Ramadan is so much more than just fasting.

Apart from food, Muslims must abstain also from drinking. They cannot even drink a drop of water from dawn to dusk. And you thought not eating was hard enough. Also, they avoid overindulgences of any kind like sex and cigarettes.

The idea behind this is that every part of the body must attain complete reticence or be restrained. The tongue must be restrained be bitching, back-biting or gossip, the eyes must be restrained from looking at wanton activities, the hand must not take anything that does not belong to it, the feet must not enter sinful places. So in this manner, the entire body observes the fast.

Dates, which are traditionally the first item eaten after breaking the fast have and the best ones are given catchy names by vendors in order to help market them during this month. In 2006, after Israel's war against Lebanon, the best dates were called Hassan Nasrallah, after the leader of Lebanon's Hizballah. In 2009, after the U.S. resident made a visit to Cairo, the best dates were called Obama. This year, the most prized dates are called ‘Martyrs of the Revolution.’ ‘Tahir Square’ is another popular variety.

The rules of the fast are not as stringent as it is believed to be. There are some instances in which one may take leave of the fast. According to the holy Koran, people who are sick, elderly, traveling, pregnant or breast-feeding, as well as children under the age of puberty, can forgo fasting if it will negatively affect their health. Also, a fast can become nullified for reasons such as menstruation, postpartum bleeding, intentional vomiting and, of course, breaking a fast to eat or drink. In all these cases, the Koran requires that believers take a qada fast, which is essentially fast one day for one day to make up for the missed days of fasting.

The two sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi’ites follow different methodologies of when to end their fast. The former may break their fast as soon as the daily maghrib prayer begins, which is when the sun is no longer visible on the horizon. The latter wait longer, believing that their fast cannot be broken until the last rays of light have vanished from the sky. However, this is not an absolute distinction.

During summer, the days are much longer and hotter, making fasting that much more difficult. Late in the holy month, Muslims celebrate the Laylat al-Qadr, or Night of Power. This is the anniversary of the night on which Allah first revealed the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad. So, the 27th night is the most widely celebrated date, when the Koran says, "The grand night is better than a thousand months."

Ramadan is a highly anticipated season for TV producers and advertisers as this time for family bonding and people stay indoors and watch a lot of television. It has been found in the Bible that Queen Esther asks the Jews to fast for three days before she visits her husband, the king, to ask him not to kill them. And in the New Testament, Jesus fasts in the desert for 40 days, which is why to this day certain Christian denominations observe Lenten fasts.

Historically, fasting did not start with the advent of Islam. Its origins date back to mentions of it in the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.

Ramzan brings out the philanthropic side of the Muslims. Donations to charities see a significant rise during the month of Ramadan, as many choose to give their charity for the year during the holy month as it is considered the most auspicious time for good deeds.

Mosques and religious organizations offer free iftar meals to the poor every evening. It's also common for the more wealthier Muslims to give poor families Ramadan baskets containing basic cooking items like tea, oil, and sugar before the first day of the month.

I’ve always wondered how my friends control their appetites through out the day. But a recent study has revealed that contrary to popular belief, Ramzan is actually the month where Muslims gain most weight. So, no, it’s not your best diet plan. This is because fasting and low levels of activity during the day give rise to some major binge eating at night. Such behavior results in slower metabolism that forces the body to store fat instead of burning it. And the iftar meals, which are served during the late evenings, are high in carbohydrates, oil, fat, thereby low nutritional sustenance.

But who can blame them? One stop at Mohammad Ali Road on an August evening and you’re sure to surrender to all its glories.

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