Islam is not alone in advocating strict disciplines at significant times of the year.
Devout Christians do not consume red meat during Lent, Hindus eat only once a day during Shravan Navratas, Jews observe many rules on Yom Kippur, but the sawm (fast) is particularly difficult for Muslims, since not a crumb of food, nor a drop of water, can pass their lips during the daylight hours of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Smoking and intimacy, between dawn and dusk, are also forbidden during Ramadan which lasts 29-30 days until the sighting of the new moon in Mecca.
The Islamic calendar is eleven days shorter than the civil one which means that Ramadan rotates backwards every year. It is hard enough, but summer temperatures in Arab countries push people to their limits. And in northern Europe, where the mid-summer sun does not set until after 21.00, Muslims must abstain for a punishing 15-16 hours.
Fasting is not obligatory for children, the elderly, pregnant women, those of unsound mind and travellers going more than 50 miles a day. However they are not wholly excused, and instead must offer kafarah requiring they feed a poor person, for each day missed.
Muslims fast not merely for atonement, but in an endeavour to come closer to God through self discipline. Fasting teaches devotion, patience, fortitude and understanding. A painful stomach and a dry mouth show how the poor suffer on a daily basis.
Fasting induces a lightness of being that is spiritual, as well as physical. Many people will perform an extra twenty rakkas (bendings) during prayers. Others spend the long daylight hours making complete readings of the Qur’an.
Ramadan is equally a social occasion bringing Muslims together in the knowledge that all are suffering irrespective of class. A feeling of goodwill prevails. People give generously, women prepare special dishes for iftar (the break-fast) when food is also cooked for the less well off.
A typical day of Ramadan begins when the family rises to eat before the fast begins at dawn. In Muslim countries many businesses close as people spend the time listening to Qur’anic recitals, reading and sleeping, until sunset approaches when they emerge to walk off the final minutes of the sawm.
Streets are crowded from Dubai to Jakarta until minutes before sunset, roads empty as everyone heads back home. In Doha, the break-fast is announced by firing a cannon: in Dacca, a water-seller smashes a coconut to signal he is open for a drink.
People eat only a little at first, starting with dates and soup. The main meal, taken later with family members and close friends, is an occasion when food is enjoyed all the more, for having gone so long without.
Festivities last late into the night. Ramadan lamps twinkle, food stalls do a brisk trade in snacks and soft drinks, children run from house to house singing traditional ditties, parks are packed and roads are jammed with cars sounding their horns, but next morning when the fast begins again, you can hear a pin drop.