At 3 am and bright kitchen lights are turned on, microwaves hum loudly, and kettles whistle away. While everyone else is fast asleep and safely tucked into their beds, the world silent around them, Muslims up and down the country are awake and pottering in their cupboards. Kitchens come alive as they prepare something to eat, motivating themselves for the fasting day ahead.
Over recent years, Iftar, the evening meal Muslims eat to break their fast during the month of Ramadan has become more widely known. Some restaurants have even capitalised on the opportunity, creating Iftar menus. However, its lesser-known counterpart, Suhur also plays a vital role in the day for fasting Muslims. Suhur, also known as Sehri, Suhr and Suhoor, is eaten before the fasting day begins at sunrise and is consumed by Fajr, the first of the five daily prayers.
Growing up, Suhur was normally a 30 minute experience witnessed through sleep-filled eyes. My mum would wake me and my sisters up to go to the kitchen where she’d already prepared our plates of tuwo da miyan kuka, a traditional Northern Nigerian dish. She swore that this meal fills your stomach up for the Ramadan fast and avoids hunger later in the day. Over the years, this particular meal became too heavy for me, and now my choice of food is a little lighter as I opt for a bowl of porridge, topped with chopped bananas and a cup of tea.
As Muslims in the UK are facing almost 17 hours abstaining from food and water this year, Suhur is crucial in helping sustain energy levels throughout the day. For some, it’s all about getting as hydrated as possible for the day ahead, for others it’s about filling their bellies, so they don’t feel as hungry quickly. With nearly two billion Muslims in the world, the community is incredibly diverse, as are the choices of food for Suhur.
“At the moment, I’ve been alternating between leftovers,” says Sumayyah Akhter, a 20-year-old university student in London. “I made a traditional South-Asian meal called sana, which is a mix of chickpeas, potato, onions and tomatoes. It’s very common in our community and you’ll find a lot of South Asians will have that pretty much every single day.”
“It’s kind of sad to admit, but I usually eat cereal for my Suhur. I keep the box and milk in my room so as not to disturb my landlady”Rahmat
Coming from a big family, observing Ramadan away from home has been an adjustment for Sumayyah. From sitting around at the dinner table, watching old TV shows with her brothers during their “sibling bonding time”, Suhur has now become a solitary occasion. Despite living with two Muslim flatmates, their different schedules mean they eat Suhur separately. “I do miss having Iftar and Suhur with my family – but I guess it’s just part of growing up, being an adult, and having that independence.”
Being away from family is something 24-year-old Rahmat Junaid, an Engineer, has also become accustomed to. Living in London with her non-Muslim landlady, Suhur is also a quiet affair. “The hardest part about doing Ramadan without your family is not having someone to wake you up for Suhur,” Rahmat says.
“I used to rent a room in a house with a Muslim family, so that was a good transition. But I’m getting used to it now, it’s just different,” Rahmat tells me. “It’s kind of sad to admit, but I usually eat cereal for my Suhur. I keep the box and milk in my room so as not to disturb my landlady, so when I wake up, I just eat, have some water and pray.”
The early hours of the morning can be a time for deep reflection and prayer for many Muslims. For Rahmat, reading more about Islam to deepen her connection with her faith is important. “I have some Islamic books I’m trying to finish this month that I’m reading on my Kindle. I’m currently reading Secrets of Divine Love.” The book which promises a ‘spiritual journey into the heart of Islam’ is this Ramadan’s popular read as demonstrated by the many posts I’ve seen shared about it on social media.
While Rahmat is able to practice her faith openly and comfortably living with her landlady, the same isn’t possible for Maryam*. A revert, living with her family in Leicester, Maryam fasts in secret as she hides her conversion from her strict Hindu parents. Despite converting 11 years ago at the age of 17, the fear of being kicked out from her family home means that Suhur takes place alone and in silence inside her bedroom.
“When I first started fasting, another revert told me to eat Slim Fast bars because they give you energy throughout the day”Maryam
“When I first started fasting, another revert told me to eat Slim Fast bars because they give you energy throughout the day, so that’s what I did for a good few years. But they taste horrible, so now I hide my Ryvita biscuits and chocolate milk,” says Maryam, as she pulls out her pre-sunrise snacks from her desk drawer.
To avoid making too much noise and risk her parents finding out, Maryam uses her Fitbit alarm to wake her up on time. “If the buzzing doesn’t wake me up, it’ll wake my cats up in my room. They’ll start making a noise and then I’ll know it’s time.”
In the hours leading up to Fajr, many Muslims will conduct a voluntary night prayer. The stillness of the night makes it a perfect time for deep reflection and worship. “I wake up about 45 minutes to an hour before and pray,” explains Maryam. “It’s the only time I can pray without the worry that someone might walk in. I like to take my time praying Fajr and all the extra prayers as well.”
Staying up the whole night is an option, with some Muslims even changing their whole day-to-day routine to revolve around prayer and worship during the holy month. As a student, this has worked occasionally for me, as I used the energy from eating to meet assignment deadlines. However, those few hours of sleep between Iftar and Suhur can be really beneficial.
“If I don’t get up, I’m worried that my dad might sleep through or not set his alarm and is relying on me”Yasmin
“I used to stay up, but it wasn’t good for my health,” says Yasmin Al-Najar, 24, a recent graduate from Manchester. “I’d end up being really lethargic the next day, so I do try to sleep in between. I find you can stay up for a bit after Fajr, but between Iftar and Suhur, I need my sleep.”
Raised by her Syrian born father and English, non-Muslim mother, eating Suhur and praying together has strengthened Yasmin and her father’s bond. “If I don’t get up, I’m worried that my dad might sleep through or not set his alarm and is relying on me. So, it’s my responsibility as I have to think about him too. That gets me up quick.”
Suhur might not get the same celebration as Iftar, but for many Muslims, it helps set out our day. While increased tiredness and a lack of energy can come as a result of continuously waking up at odd hours of the night for 30 days straight, that time spent eating provides us with the brainpower to carry out our prayers and worship. Plus, as Yasmin reminds me, “They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day so technically Suhur is as well.”
*Names have been changed