The sun rises at 5.59am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is day 10 of the holy month of Ramadan in which practising Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
Today, I — a non-Muslim — decide to fast to show solidarity with Muslim friends and learn how I react after having no food or water for 13 waking hours.
For suhoor, the meal ahead of sunrise, I sit down at 5.30am and have two bread rolls, some smoked salmon, oats with blueberries, cheese, a fried egg, a litre of water and a glass of chocolate milk.
As the call for dawn prayer sounds from the local mosque, I take my last sip of water, hoping that I have consumed enough to last through sunset.
Next door, the Omar family have also finished their suhoor. During Ramadan, Sajida Aziz Omar, her finance specialist husband Mohammed Fahim and their older children, aged 10 and 15, get up before dawn; another son aged seven sleeps in. They eat lightly early in the morning, usually some yogurt and fruit.
Fasting is optional for the two youngest, but the seven-year-old often joins in.
“My husband and I just have a couple of dates and some water for suhoor and I somehow feel less hungry throughout the day,” says Sajida. Afterwards, the family prays together, then goes back to sleep for a short while before the school and work day begins.
During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast as part of a broader appeal to resist committing sins, to become more patient, to better understand sacrifice — and enhance their relationship with God.
In the words of Estonian-born influencer Eslimah, who converted to Islam in 2011 and who has over 600,000 followers on Instagram, Ramadan is a spiritual boot camp where Muslims try to root out all evil, increase their good deeds and become more knowledgeable about their faith.
The fasting element, though, may require the most discipline. Not drinking water is what most worries me, but Sajida reassures me.
“If I’ve been for a walk or a Pilates or yoga class, I sometimes do feel thirsty, but then I usually just gargle with water without swallowing — or have a shower and rest, and I never feel really dehydrated, as I make sure to drink at least two litres of water between iftar [the breaking of the fast at sundown] and suhoor,” she says.
My day of fasting will mostly be spent in air-conditioned spaces, engaging in low-energy activities. I look forward to an afternoon online meeting with my writing club, to distract me from the hunger and thirst that I am expecting.
I think about those who have to concentrate and perform at school or work — or toil under the beaming sun. But, apparently, with the right tools, one can get used to depriving the body of food and water between sunrise and sunset for one month every year.
According to the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, part of the US-based Cleveland Clinic Foundation, having a wholesome suhoor with plenty of fluids is crucial. It should include nutrient-rich food like oatmeal, labneh (a fresh cheese), fruits and vegetables.
Lower glycemic index foods such as wholegrain breads, hummus and yogurt are also good options as they release energy slowly throughout the day, it advises. Likewise, a healthy iftar and moderate exercise can help you through Ramadan — and even boost your health.
Although research on the topic of dry fasting — in which you do not have any liquid or food during the fasting period — is scarce, some believe that it can regulate “bad cholesterol”, improve the immune system, and lower blood sugar.
In his book 20 Q&A about Dry Fasting, Russian doctor Sergey Filonov notes that many of his patients report less hunger while dry fasting than if they are consuming water.
Sajida is proud that she can do all her usual daily chores while dry fasting, and feels that she has more energy during Ramadan.
“When we fast, our body detoxes, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally as well,” says Sajida, who started fasting when she was about 12 years old. She quotes from the Quran (chapter 2, verse 183): “O ye who believe, fasting was prescribed for you as it was prescribed to those before you, so that you may be conscious of God.”
Hunger and thirst sneak up on me at 4pm. When I arrive at a traditional iftar buffet at the Sahara Tent restaurant in Kuala Lumpur at around 7pm, I am in discomfort and have low energy.
The clock strikes 7.20pm and the sunset prayer sounds from the mosque — so I break fast by eating a date and drinking two large glasses of water and a glass of lemonade. Water never tasted this good.
I eat vegetables, chicken, hummus, labneh, lamb and rice — and after a second helping, I have chocolate cake and watermelon for dessert.
My day of Ramadan has brought me a closer understanding of Muslim traditions, and taught me that we are capable of more than we think. I realise that, combined with reflection and prayer, fasting during Ramadan is a spiritual reset that devoted Muslims take on with pride and joy.
Sajida encourages people to give fasting a try: “Go for it and reap the physical benefits if not the spiritual benefits from this beautiful, blessed month.”
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.