By Huang Beihua (20A03A), Coco Liu (20S06L), Sarah Lok (20A03A), and Emily Ni (20S03C)
Photos courtesy of Nurinsyirah Binte Nasser (20S03K) and Nurin Hasha Binte Jubir (19A13B)
For the more astute, you probably noticed that something was amiss when you clicked on this article: all four authors have distinctly Chinese surnames.
You might be wondering why four Chinese students are writing this article, when we probably don’t know much about the Ramadan experience. To a certain extent, you’re right. Apart from being aware of the fact that our Muslim friends go through a month of fasting every year, we never fully understood what exactly Ramadan entailed beyond that.
And so we chose to explore the perspectives of Ramadan from a few individuals, each living an unique version of this holy month.
Enter the Ramadan days of Mirza Bin Abdul Latiff (20S06D), Nurinsyirah Binte Nasser (20S03K), and Nurin Hasha Binte Jubir (19A13B).
4.45–5.00am: Wake up. Yes, when you are racing the sun, it will have to be that early.
5.00–5.35am: Sahur, the pre-dawn meal and the last meal eaten before fasting for the day, needs to be eaten by around 5.35 am—the time varies day-to-day, calculated to the second with mathematical precision based on when sunrise is. The meal will often include a variety of dishes and will almost definitely include dates, said to be one of the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite food. For Nurin, apart from fueling the rest of the day, the Sahur also serves an opportunity to bond with her family: “it’s a rare moment when you [and your family] can sit together at the dining table.”
Make no pretense, however, that such an early meal is for everyone: as Insyirah shares, her Sahur might involve only dates and water when she just has no appetite. But she persists—and so do countless others.
Approximately 5.35am: The azan, or the call of prayer, signals the start of the Fajr prayer—the first of the five daily prayers a practising Muslim needs to perform. Though Fajr translates to ‘dawn’ in Arabic, this prayer can be performed anytime from the stipulated time to sunrise.
After this, it’s off to school for most of them. Some, such as Nurin, will also find the time to read a few passages of the Quran (the central religious text of Islam) before making her way to school.
7.40am: Once at school, it’s business as usual. Fasting does not stop any of them from participating enthusiastically in school activities (yes, even PE!). “You are meant to carry out activities as per normal, because you are putting yourself in the shoes of people who can’t eat or drink,” Insyirah shares. Fortunately, for most of them, physical activity whilst fasting is something that they have already gotten used to after so many years in school. “It’s also a test of patience,” says Nurin. “Trying to tahan your hunger for the sake of God.”
10.35am: The bell rings, and the lunch many cheerfully indulge in presents yet another challenge. Indeed, as Insyirah confesses, “it was hard,” especially in primary or secondary school, though, “the past few weeks had not been that bad”. She will, in fact, “just accompany her class to lunch”, simply refusing when offered food. A piece of good news for non-Muslims: most Muslims are actually fine with watching their non-fasting peers eat. In fact, Insyirah says that it’s good—“it reminds us of why we are fasting.”
3.30pm: CCA, as compared to PE, is a bit of a problem for those in sports CCAs. Not only is it typically later in the day, but the intensity of competitive training also takes its toll compared to a recreational lesson. A group of dragon boaters we spoke to admitted that it was exhausting to train whilst fasting; however, as they say, it’s “not an excuse not to try.” Here, solidarity and camaraderie help as they tackle the hectic exercises with resolve: “You appreciate having other [Muslims] to it do together [with] and we can motivate each other,” says Denisa Armeilia Tami (20A13A).
Throughout the day, they will also need to perform their other prayers: Zuhr, Asr, and Maghrib (second to fourth of the daily prayers). Since these prayers can be performed at somewhat flexible timings, it is not a big disruptor of their day, as they can simply slip off to prayers during break.
Approximately 7.10pm: As night falls, it is finally time to break fast with iftar, the evening meal. Iftar, like Sahur, is dependent upon the sun.
Again, just like Sahur, iftar is followed by a prayer—Isha’a, the last prayer of the day. Bazaars are often set up to fill the empty stomachs of those who fast, and communal dinners are sometimes held in communities—whilst not a religious practice, it is encouraged that one eats with their family and friends.
Following this tradition, the Malay Literary Drama Cultural Society (MLDCS) organises an evening where all fasting Muslim students are invited to break fast together once every year. Small groups of three to five students gather around one plate of nasi ambeng, sharing well-loved dishes like ayam masak lemak cili padi (chicken in spicy coconut gravy) and beef rendang. Packet drinks like bandung and Milo are also distributed, all interlaced with the lighthearted chatter of friends. Perhaps surprisingly, the meal also includes cookies from Subway and KFC chicken!
Mr Kamal, teacher-in-charge of the Malay Literary Drama Cultural Society (MLDCS), was heartened to see the students coming together: their annual iftar has been a “tradition for many years”, in place since before he was an RI student in 1990. “Since this is a once-in-a year-opportunity,” he enthused, “it’s really nice for them to come and have a meal together.”
To frame the entire day with austere meal timings alone, however, would be to miss the point entirely. As Insyirah and Mirza explain, “[fasting] is not just about abstaining from eating and drinking”.
Instead, Insyirah believes that Ramadan “serves as a [personal] reminder to reconnect to God, and try to be a better person… it gets better every year, with better self-control of emotions and the like. It is a special month where our deeds are amplified.” Similarly, to Mirza, Ramadan is about “abstaining from worldly desires, [reflecting] on yourself as a Muslim… it is a time of self-improvement.” Nurin offered the word sabr—an Arabic word that means patience—in response to this. To her, Ramadan encapsulates “having patience, sacrificing the things you like, [and] suppressing your desires (e.g. hunger)”.
“People may think that when we fast, we can’t function [and] we’ll be lazing around… that ain’t true! We’re meant to carry out our activities as per normal, because we’re putting ourselves in the shoes of people who can’t eat or drink.”Insyirah (20S03K)
Mirza also mentions that during Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to volunteer at the mosques; Nurin adds that one can donate a portion of their salary to the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), which will distribute the money accordingly.
On the face of it, Ramadan may seem to just be about abstaining from food and water for a set period of time during the day. However, it is much more than only that: it is an exercise in resilience and empathy, a period of self-reflection, and a timely reminder to help the less fortunate.
We admit that we came into this article a little hesitant, worried that we would be unable to do justice to Nurin, Insyirah and Mirza’s stories. Perhaps the four of us, not being Muslims, can never wholly understand the holy month, but had we chosen to be content with our starkly incomplete comprehension of Ramadan, we could have missed out on this measure of understanding, no matter how slight. We are glad, then, that we took on the challenge—a challenge through which we found ourselves with a deeper appreciation for the tapestry of cultures that surrounds us.