MS and Ramadan

Talat Ahmed explains how Islam helped her cope with her diagnosis, and the struggle to fast during the holy month of Ramadan

After the birth of my daughter in 2004, I didn’t feel great and noticed I would limp when I was very tired and found it difficult to run. In late 2009 I saw neurological consultant and after I had an MRI scan, I was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS).

I soon fell pregnant and had a son and was told I could not start medication until I had stopped breast feeding.

My faith

My faith was really important to me after my diagnosis. Muslims are taught that life on earth is temporary, that this life is a test, and you must live it being as good a person as possible. It is human to be kind and respectful to all living things, and to all faiths. This is not to say that I don’t feel frustrated that I can’t be the person I was when I was fit and healthy at 19 years old. However, especially after the age of 40, I have accepted my MS and make the necessary adjustments to my life far more than I used to.

The same cannot be said about some of my family members and friends, who do not see me live with MS, but to me that’s OK. My faith gives me hope that things will get better for people diagnosed with MS and in the meantime, I am grateful for what I have and will keep going as much as I am able to. I desperately don’t want to be dependent on others, but sometimes you have to, and I am thankful that they let me.

The holy month

Ramadan is the Islamic holy month where Muslims fast for a period of 29 or 30 days, depending on the sighting of the new moon. We consume no food or drink between dawn and sunset. This year it runs from 2 April to 1 May.

The purpose of doing this is because as Muslims, we believe that it is the time to feel closer to God. It is a deeply spiritual time when we as a community become more focused on prayer and instilling a discipline to carry on the day without any food or even a drop of water. Instead, we focus on being thankful for what we do have, give to charity, reflect and correct our behaviours as human beings and not waste our time here on earth. We are not eating food and drink and we do this because we want to please Him.

In winter months, fasting during Ramadan was fine – not too hot. I got plenty of sleep because there were less daylight hours, and it felt great to be taking part with all the family. It felt really fulfilling. However, every year after Ramadan I felt my condition slightly worsen. But I persevered.

It was important to observe fast, because it was what I was brought up to believe.  The atmosphere in the household changes. Family feels more unified. We know we are going to have extra special food to look forward to – not the healthiest I hasten to add. But especially when you’re a kid, although not obligatory to fast until puberty, there’s a change of routine to follow that felt special and came with a sense of togetherness, which is difficult to capture in words.

Summertime sadness

The Islamic calendar follows the lunar calendar which is shorter by roughly 10 days a year. Therefore, when Ramadan fell in the summer months, it was torture! I couldn’t wait for my respite (women who are on their period do not keep fast, but they have to make it up within the year). However, to my horror, my period never came, and annoyingly it was like that for five years!

People who are ill or have chronic health conditions, or mothers who are pregnant or breastfeeding are not required to fast during Ramadan. Therefore, last year was the first year I did not keep fast and I really felt like I was missing out. The weather was unbearable and so, with guilt, I felt relieved that I was not taking part. To make up for not fasting, I gave money to charity, so a poor person would keep fast on my behalf, which is equivalent to paying a person £5 per day. But, just because I do not keep fast this does not mean I cannot take part in all the other activities, so that has not changed much, and I do as much as I can.

The hardest part

The biggest challenge of Ramadan has to be lack of sleep. I need sleep. I love sleep. There’s a saying in Islam – ‘Prayer is better than sleep.’ I couldn’t quite follow that mantra. Tea and coffee withdrawal is hard, and I would normally give up tea and coffee and definitely eat a lot less chocolate during Ramadan. As soon as it ended, though, alas so did those good habits.

My advice

There are so many forums now and so much information out there on how to receive help. People live much better lifestyles nowadays by changing their diet and going onto disease-modifying treatments much sooner than when I was first diagnosed. Finally, we are so lucky to have the NHS in the UK and there is now a far greater investment into MS globally, which gives me hope that someday there will be a cure.