Diary: Fasting means to better yourself

Until three years ago, I had no idea why anyone would want to fast. It seemed ridiculous. But then, on holiday in Egypt, someone enlightened me.

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ABU DHABI // Nearly two years ago, I converted to Islam. It was not exactly a well-trodden trail for a blonde English girl who came to the UAE to pursue her career in journalism, and, depending on who was listening, my decision was met with shock, elation, disdain or distress. Although my story is long and pitted with tangents, Ramadan takes centre stage in its telling. Today is the first day of that month, the ninth in the Islamic calendar; , depending on the lunar cycle, it is 29 or 30 days long. It is mandatory, with some exceptions, for Muslims to fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset for those days.

Until three years ago, I had no idea why anyone would do this. It seemed ridiculous. But then, on holiday in Egypt, someone enlightened me as to the psychological concept behind Ramadan. It was about restraint on every level, he said. Not only were eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse forbidden during fasting hours, but so were things not so easy to measure, such as malicious thoughts, swearing, shouting, lying and denouncing someone behind their back. These shouldn't be done at all, but were technically forbidden during the entire holy month, not only during daylight.

The idea, as I understood it, was to fast the mind, body and soul. To battle egotistical qualities such as anger, impatience, extravagance and arrogance. For me, this was fascinating: the hunger and thirst faded into a side effect - merely a physical reminder of the more important spiritual dimension. As a non-Muslim, I tried fasting, and was amazed. I learnt about my inner self. I saw my impatience, my lack of willpower, my selfish desires and my judgments. I realised the struggle was not about missing my lunch, but about trying to become a better person.

That journey of self discovery played a big role in my journey towards becoming a Muslim. Of course, Islam is not the only religion to incorporate fasting. The Quran acknowledges: "Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you." On the Jewish Festival of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), eating, drinking, bathing and wearing certain luxurious materials is prohibited and the Jewish bride and groom fast on their wedding day to begin the marriage in a state of purity. Over the 40 days and nights of Lent, Christians give up some luxurious food items as a reminder to focus on faith, reflection and prayer.

But for me, this is not about anyone else. Ever since that first day, I have really enjoyed fasting. I look forward to Ramadan. To me, it is about coming closer to the reality underneath the temporary shell of the body and the fuel of food and drink we use to keep it going. Ultimately, whatever religion we align ourselves with, we are all souls. I believe through fasting you can get closer to knowing that soul.