I REMEMBER MY first fast. I was nine, and my family had just migrated from Pakistan to a bitterly cold London. My mother woke me up around four in the morning to have something to eat to start the fast. That was the hardest thing for me to do. The winter of 1961 was severely harsh; and February, the month of Ramadan, was awash with snow. But the fast itself was a doddle. The days were rather short and it was all over by about four in the afternoon. I was back from school just in time to break the fast.

Fasting in Islam is a month-long affair. Muslims fast throughout the month of Ramadan from just before sunrise until sunset. The Islamic calendar is based on the cycles of the moon. It began on the 16th of July 622 with the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. The lunar year is shorter than the solar year and the months drift in relation to the seasons, going through all four seasons in a cycle of 32.5 years. Fasting in Ramadan can thus be experienced during the shivering cold of winter as well as the extreme heat of summer when the days are very long and the fast seems to last for ever.

In Islam, fasting is a form of worship, both individual and collective. Along with daily prayers, payment of zakat (obligatory giving to the poor) and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting is regarded as one of the main ‘pillars’ of Islam. As such, it is obligatory for all Muslims, but there are exceptions. People on medication or those travelling can fast an equal number of days when they have recovered or their journeys have ended. Those with prolonged afflictions or disabilities, elderly people and breast-feeding mothers don’t have to fast at all. As a substitute, they can feed a needy person or undertake another spiritual exercise.

THE QUR’AN EMPHASISES the moral and spiritual benefits of fasting, and suggests that the purpose of fasting is to teach self-restraint. During the fast, Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink as well as sex and all disorderly, abusive and aggressive behaviour. But fasting should not disconnect you from your worldly affairs. You continue with your normal, daily life. However, you are more focused on prayer, service to humanity, and remembrance of God.

Ramadan is the month during which the revelations of the Qur’an began. The Prophet Muhammad was meditating in the Cave of Hira, near Mecca, when he ‘received’ the first verse of the Qur’an: “Read in the name of Your Lord who created. He created men from a clinging form. Read, your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen, who taught man what he did not know.” So Ramadan marks the beginning of Islam. The word ‘Qur’an’ literally means ‘reading’ or ‘recitation’. And during Ramadan the whole Qur’an is read from cover to cover.

This happens during extra evening prayers, which are held in congregation. The Imam, who leads the prayer, begins with the first chapter of the Qur’an on the first day of Ramadan, reciting the Sacred Text loudly. He moves on from chapter to chapter, passage to passage, each night, finishing the complete Qur’an on the last day of Ramadan. Not surprisingly, these prayers tend to be quite long and can last up to two or three hours. In addition, more pious individuals may read the Qur’an silently at home, during the day as well as the middle of the night.

But the fasting month has another important significance. The function of fasting is to experience the pains of hunger and thirst. This enables those who fast to understand and appreciate the experience of those who are less fortunate than themselves. This exercise moves us to do something about the poor and the needy. Thus Ramadan is not just the month of fasting: it is also the month of giving. Muslims pay their zakat during Ramadan. The minimum is 2.5% of one’s annual income, but depending on one’s property and wealth, it can be much more.

While fasting is a way of purifying one’s body, zakat is a way of purifying one’s wealth. In Islam, fasting has no meaning if one continues to live, eat and drink from an income that has not been purified by giving the poor and the needy what is their due – their right to one’s wealth.

In addition to zakat, most Muslims also give sadqa, or charity. And Ramadan is the month when most charity is given and charitable deeds are done. In Britain, Muslim charities such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid collect millions of pounds in zakat and sadqa during Ramadan from the Muslim community. Some of this money is distributed to the deprived segments of British Muslim communities, but most goes to development projects in the Third World. Ramadan is also the month when many young Muslims sign up to do voluntary work overseas.

The month of fasting is also a great social lubricant. Traditionally you invite your relatives and friends to open their fast at your house. Or you go to their house. Or you go, food in hand, to the mosque. During Ramadan, the mosques are the best places to eat. Worshippers bring as much food as they can. Since they come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, one can experience the best of home cooking from almost every part of the world. For example, my mosque in Hendon, where cultural origins of worshippers range from India and Pakistan, Turkey and Somalia, Egypt and South Africa to Indonesia and Uzbekistan, offers a truly eye-popping feast.

IN MANY MUSLIM countries, Ramadan ushers in some significant changes in daily routine. In Saudi Arabia, for example, day becomes night and night becomes day. Once the cannon is fired to announce the start of the fast, the country goes to sleep. The streets are deserted; offices, shops and business establishments are closed, opening for only a few hours between ten and one. Signs of life start just before sunset. By the time the cannons have been fired again, this time to announce the end of the fast, the whole country becomes vibrant with excitement. The skylines are illuminated with a riot of colour, and streets and alleyways are crowded with people all rushing to buy food to break their fast.

Excitement mounts as we move towards the end of Ramadan, which is marked by a festival called Eid ul-Fitr. The month formally ends when the new moon is sighted. In most Muslim countries, children would be out every night looking for the new moon. Islam places a great deal of emphasis on direct connection between the human and the cosmos. The idea is to feel the ripple of time, to be as close to Nature as possible. Hence the insistence on physical sighting of the new moon by human eyes.

Eid is celebrated with gifts and parties. But the most important thing is new clothing. Everyone dresses in their finest new clothes. And here, once again, the fast only retains its meaning if you ensure that your neighbours, too, are catered for. Giving of new clothes, especially to children and particularly to orphans, is a long tradition in many Muslim countries.

The period of celebration varies from region to region. In the Indian Subcontinent, Eid lasts three days, in some African countries it continues for seven days, and in Southeast Asia it can last up to a whole month.

There are cultural variations in how the end of Ramadan is celebrated. Street carnivals are common in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. In Malaysia and Indonesia there is a tradition of ‘open house’. People in the neighbourhood know which house is ‘open’ so they can simply walk in to partake in the celebratory feast. When I lived in Kuala Lumpur during the 1990s, I would spend the whole month following Ramadan simply eating at other people’s ‘open houses’ – including those of complete strangers.

In Britain, Eid is the time to visit all the friends you wanted to see but couldn’t get around to visiting. On the whole, the end of Ramadan is a time when people compete with each other in generosity.

IN ISLAM, THE idea of fasting is wrapped with two intrinsic notions. First, fasting is connected to ‘effort’: Ramadan is the month when Muslims make extra effort to be close to God through fasting, reading the Qur’an and service to humanity. Second, is connected to ‘spontaneously doing good’. Fasting is inherently good, but it also leads to good actions. Ramadan is thus the month when Muslims demonstrate their good intentions towards others and show these intentions by concrete deeds. In the end, fasting is all about walking, with humility and reverence, towards God.

Ziauddin Sardar is the author of Balti Britain: A Journey Through the British Asian Experience.