Posted: Thursday 11 May 2023, 09:41
What is Ramadan? If, like me, you’re a non-Muslim who doesn’t really know then let me explain. The Islamic faith is based around five Pillars which all Muslims are obliged to fulfil during their lifetime. By doing so they cultivate the essence of Islam as a religion of peace within their lives. These Pillars are: Shahada (Faith), Salah (Prayer), Zakat (Charity), Sawm (Fasting) and Hajj (Pilgrimage).
The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycles and as such exact dates for Ramadan changes every year, by roughly 10 days, but Ramadan itself always starts with the sighting of the full moon starting the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.
Ramadan is a month of contemplation of the Islamic faith and the revealing of the Quran by the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). The exact night that the Quran was revealed is referred to as Lailut ul-Qadr (The night of Power). Throughout Ramadan the focus upon the Quran becomes intensified, with all distractions being removed and as part of this process Muslims observe Sawm (fasting).
So what is Sawm? The fasting means that all adult Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and sexual intimacy from dawn until sunset. Interestingly, there are exceptions to this so those who are ill, menstruating, breastfeeding or pregnant are not expected to fast. This also applies to children who have not yet hit puberty and the elderly as fasting is seen as a nourishing act and should not cause the practitioner harm.
Some within the fire sector question whether Ramadan would cause an issue to any Muslim who wants to become a firefighter. The common misconception being ‘well you can’t perform a rescue from a fire if you can’t re-hydrate afterwards – its not safe’. I wanted to discover whether this was true, how Ramadan makes you ‘feel’ and how the experience affects you for the month. I decided that I would join our Muslim community and participate in Ramadan this year. The idea being that it would give me a personal experience and put me in a better place to answer any questions going forward. I also decided very early on that I would like to share this experience with DFRS personnel through regular video updates on Twitter, so that they may pick up some information or advice to help them in the future.
I contacted Shareen Ahktar, the Community Safety Officer at Ascot Drive, who is a practicing Muslim, for advice. Shareen was shocked when I informed her that I wanted to experience the whole month of Ramadan. After gathering info on Suhur (a pre-Dawn meal, traditionally dates and milk but can be anything really to set you up for the day) and Iftar (post sunset meal) along with hints and tips I was ready to start. If I’m completely honest, I was pretty anxious and scared that by doing this I may be seen as ‘tokenistic’ and inauthentic by the Muslim community but as the month went by I was genuinely surprised by the openness and, shockingly, appreciation of my wish to share the experience.
I’d bought myself Medjool dates and was keen and ready for the morning of 23 May and my first Suhur. Well, it didn’t go as planned. I slept right through my alarm and started that first day without food or water! This was to become a common theme and my routine soon settled into having water by my bedside and when I inevitably woke during the night I would guzzle as much as I could and that way I could stave off the dehydration during the following day. The biggest realisation to me was that I didn’t really miss the food as much as I thought I would but the water was a real test for me.
During the first few days of Ramadan I suffered with headaches but I think this was more the caffeine withdrawal and they only lasted a few days . It also became apparent that I would be fine up until mid-afternoon and then my concentration would wane before picking up again around 5pm. The evening breaking of the fast is a communal event with people coming together for Iftar followed by evening prayers and these were my favourite parts of Ramadan. As a non-Muslim, my family environment didn’t facilitate this aspect for me and so breaking the fast tended to be a solitary affair. However, due to the popularity of my Twitter updates, I was lucky enough to have been invited to several Iftars including the Derby Jamia Mosque and to Birmingham by the Association of Muslim Police. I also organised a small Community Iftar whereby colleagues from Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service and Derbyshire Constabularly fasted for a day and then we all visited Derby Jamia Mosque to break our fast and share a meal with the Muslim community there. The appreciation of the community after realising we had voluntarily chosen to share the Ramadan experience on their terms was truly humbling and completely unexpected. I had started this experience purely for my own education but what became clear was that new relationships and respect for DFRS would become the outcome of what I was doing.
The whole experience was at times very difficult, especially after a prolonged Firecall or after a day of physical work on personal projects. Ramadan fell over the Easter holidays too and so having to abstain from ice-cream with the kids or family meals in a pub, whilst everyone else tucked into fish and chips and supped a nice cold pint, was…testing. So, there were certainly very difficult times during the whole experience but, did I find any answers? Yes. Firstly, whilst Sawm is a key part of the Islamic faith it is a personal choice and should not be an act that causes harm. In the context of being a firefighter if saving a life is required then Muslims can legitimately break their fast and ‘make up’ that fast at any time during the year. This is accepted practice within Islam and so the aim would be for Muslims to fast but if circumstance meant breaking the fast to avoid harm then that is OK. What if I have a Muslim on my watch? Well, just use common sense. Following my own experience I would ensure more physical elements of the job take part during the morning as I had that afternoon dip but speak to them, ask how fasting affects them and adjust accordingly. If I may suggest, join in with them for a day – share the experience and cement the relationship and friendships!
I believe that we should build on the positive relationships built within the Muslim community as we can do some good prevention work and so my plans will be to organise a community Iftar in Derby in partnership with the local Mosques, community leaders and Police. Finally, would I do it again? Probably, although maybe not for the whole month! (but who knows?)