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  • Amani Saeed

No, I don’t want a Ramadan advent calendar: reflections on a supposedly holy time.

Updated: Mar 15

The season of ‘not even water?’ is upon us. Ramadan 2024—or Ramadan 1445 in the Hijri calendar—officially commenced on Sunday night with the sighting of the crescent moon. 

Because I’m a Muslim in a mostly non-Muslim country, every year, I get ready to send a company-wide email explaining why I’m turning down biscuits and cups of tea. I also told colleagues tiptoeing around with their Pret and packed lunches that I really don’t mind if they eat within a three-mile radius of me. 

Given that nearly 2 billion people in the world are Muslims, I find it surprising– and that’s the polite word– that so few people in the UK seem to understand what Ramadan is. So, as is the ancient custom, here’s your explanation from a resident Muslim about what this month is all about.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is one of the months of the Islamic calendar. It’s known to be holy because it was the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ, or peace be upon him) through the angel Jibril (Gabriel). 

Because Muslims use a lunar calendar, Ramadan happens at slightly different times each year, which means that the length of the fast varies not only annually but throughout the month (check out Islamic Relief’s timetable for London as an example). So in 2020, when Ramadan fell in June, both in the middle of a lockdown and in the heat of the summer, fasting in London was challenging. In total, fasts were around 16 hours, running from 4 am until 8 pm. This year, we’re at a much more reasonable 14 hours, running from around 4:30 am until 6:30 pm.

What do Muslims do during Ramadan?

Sawm, or fasting, is one of the five pillars of Islam - the others are shahada (profession of faith), salat (prayer), Zakat (almsgiving), and Hajj (pilgrimage). Muslims who are able are obliged to fast–or abstain from food, water, medicine, smoking, and sex –from sunrise to sunset. Not all Muslims fast - those who are ill (including having mental ill health), pregnant or nursing, menstruating, travelling, young children, or elderly, do not have to fast.

These aren’t the only things Muslims are fasting from. Ramadan is also a time to focus on personal growth and character and shift away from behaviours such as lying, losing one's temper, swearing, and gossiping. 

Speaking personally, this is the part I find the most difficult. I catch myself flinching at all the swear words on my playlists, avoiding TV shows because of the sexual content that I usually don’t even notice, clocking that it’s time for Dhuhr while I’m in the middle of a meeting, and marvelling at how much I want to cuss in a given day.

While fasting is traditionally seen as a ‘turning away’ from the tangible world, it’s also a ‘turning toward’ faith, where Muslims seek to become closer to Allah (God). You may see your Muslim colleagues more tired than usual as many stay up to pray the Taraweeh prayers, which can run late into the night. Some Muslims also take time off, especially during the last ten days of Ramadan, which are said to be especially holy, to dedicate their time and focus on their faith.

We’re only a few days in, but what’s been helpful has been thinking less about what I’m avoiding and more about what I’m turning toward. Getting to see my family to have iftar together, earmarking time to read books that help grow my knowledge of Islam, and praying more regularly all feel spiritually rewarding and grounding. 

Ok, we get it, lots of faith stuff. Do I need to know all that?

I think you do. People tend to focus a lot on abstaining from the food aspect of the month and less on the rest. And it shows - from the marketers who want to capitalise on the Muslim pound without doing the essential reading to the managers who expect the same performance levels when you’re running on less energy.

My brother and I were walking through a department store recently. We saw banners decorated with the moon and stars and a shiny gold cursive ‘Ramadan Mubarak’, along with themed tableware and a Ramadan advent calendar. He rolled his eyes. Given that he’d been called a racial epithet out of a moving car while he was walking to the masjid in his thobe and Nikes, he wasn’t particularly impressed by a few paper plates. 

I’m also no stranger to being called a terrorist or strangers assuming my parents are oppressive and want to marry me off. What really gets me is that we live in a country where there are nearly 4 million Muslims, who are routinely surveilled by the government, stereotyped negatively by the media, and misrepresented by politicians; and that Muslims all over the world - Palestine, Sudan, Congo, Xinjiang, and Myanmar, to name a few - are being persecuted. And we Muslims are meant to be pleased– grateful, even– at a 30-second advertising slot or some balloons. 

It’s deeply disorienting. Cognitively dissonant. And unjust. So it feels like the bare minimum for people who want to take from us - whether that’s our custom, our effort, or our time–to recognise what this month means to us. And it feels like it’s time for the narrative to shift. 

Here at The Unmistakables, we have begun to see that narrative shift over time, with brands and businesses wanting to bolster their cultural confidence regarding Ramadan. We played our part on Tesco’s first-ever Ramadan advert and with Uber Eats over the years. These are just baby steps in creative work that tries to represent millions of people (and doesn’t always get it right).

I’m not making an advert, so what can I personally do to support my fasting colleagues?

  • Offer flexibility and grace - with the interruption of sleeping patterns and lack of food and water, Ramadan can be a tiring time for many Muslims. Being aware of when colleagues are working at their best, offering flexibility in working patterns to allow time for prayers (and even naps!), and cutting colleagues a little slack for not being as ‘on it’ can go a long way to helping Muslims feel included in the workplace.

  • Be curious and build your knowledge - something that can make Ramadan a lonely time for Muslims living in non-Muslim countries can be feeling as though no one understands or cares why you’re fasting. Demonstrating awareness and understanding, sharing iftar (the nighttime meal) together, and checking in on colleagues will be well received. If you work in a field such as advertising where you need to put out content about Ramadan, always do your research, collaborate with Muslims on paid content, and sense-check your content with various Muslims from different backgrounds. 

  • …but don’t be nosy - not all Muslims fast, and the reasons for this can be deeply personal, from being on your period to having an eating disorder, so it’s important not to probe. If someone wishes to share more, they’ll tell you.

Where can I learn more?

  • We’ve written a Stereotypes Study with insights into what Muslims think and feel in the UK.

  • Amaliah has an excellent resource for employers that provides information on flexible working accommodations. 

And with that - Ramadan Mubarak! 


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