Why More Non-Muslims Are Fasting This Ramadan

5 minute read

Alexander Sless, a 26-year-old living in Texas, has been fasting for Ramadan since 2021. But unlike the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, for whom fasting during the holy month is a central pillar of the faith, Sless isn’t a Muslim. In fact, he isn’t particularly religious at all. “I grew up relatively open minded to different religions and cultures,” says Sless, an agnostic who was born in Israel to a Russian-Ukrainian family before ultimately moving to the United States. After a Muslim friend told him about Ramadan, he decided to make a comedic TikTok about fasting, which then prompted a challenge.

“Bro, u need to try out one day of fasting,” one user said. “Challenge accepted,” Sless responded. “I’ll vlog it!” He’s been doing them ever since. And although Sless doesn’t post as much as he did the first year, he says he still continues to fast most of the month.

Sless is not alone. Around the world, a growing number of non-Muslims have begun documenting their own experiences observing Ramadan. These individuals aren’t participating as would-be converts to Islam. Some, including Sless, like the self-discipline that Ramadan instills. Others have chosen to observe the month in order to learn more about Islam and the spiritual fulfillment that the month entails. Many have cited supporting a Muslim friend or a wider Muslim community as their reason for participating, while others say they were inspired to do so because they are living in a Muslim-majority country.

Whatever the reason, the fact that so many non-Muslims appear to be gaining an interest in one of the most widely-observed holidays around the world presents an opportunity for more people to better understand what Ramadan is all about. Though the holy month is perhaps best known as a time of fasting, during which those who are able to fast refrain from eating and drinking (yes, even water) during daylight hours, the month is about so much more. Ramadan marks the ninth and most sacred month of the Islamic lunar calendar, during which Muslims believe that the Quran, the Islamic holy book, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Read More: Why Not All Observant Muslims Fast During Ramadan

While fasting is certainly one component of the month, it is hardly the sole motivation. Ramadan is a time of spiritual discipline that is dedicated to prayer, charity (Muslims are highly encouraged to give charity, or zakat, during the month), and self reflection. Indeed, Muslims are not only expected to fast from food and drink, but also more unsavory habits such as swearing, gossiping, and holding grudges. Ramadan is also a time of celebration and community gathering, whether it’s for predawn breakfasts (known in Arabic as suhoor), post-sunset feasts (iftar), or special nighttime prayers in the Mosque called taraweeh.

Although their experience is undoubtedly different, these kinds of benefits don’t elude non-Muslim participants. “When you’re fasting, you get an immense sense of clarity of mind and you become a lot less anxious,” wrote Ruth Medjber, an Arab-Irish photographer from a Muslim and Catholic family who chronicled her experience fasting for Ramadan as an atheist in a 2021 piece for the Irish Times. “During the month of Ramadan, I’m forced to slow down. I simply don’t have the energy to carry on working at my full, maniacal speed.”

“I genuinely like the experience because it’s good discipline—like a refresh for the year,” says Sless. As he sees it, “You have 11 months to do whatever you want and it’s just a nice cleanse.”

While Sless has had the occasional criticism over his Ramadan videos—including by some who have suggested that non-Muslims fasting for Ramadan constitutes a kind of cultural appropriation—he says that the vast majority of the response has been positive, particularly from other Muslims. And while some Muslims rightly caution against trivializing Ramadan or making it out to be “just another quirky health fad,” others argue that the inclusion of non-Muslims in the holy month should be more encouraged—if not to bring them closer to the faith, then at least to instill a great sense of familiarity and understanding of Muslims and what they stands for.

And that is sorely needed. Anti-Muslim sentiment is a prevalent form of hate—this year, both the European Union and Canada appointed officials tasked with addressing it. While the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in 2021 that would require the State Department to appoint a special envoy for monitoring and combating Islamophobia worldwide (not dissimilar to one for anti-Semitism), the legislation has languished in the Senate since.

Introducing more non-Muslims to Islam and its festive traditions like Ramadan could give them a more positive view of the religion, says Muhammad Abdel Haleem, the director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African studies. “It is good in this way,” he says.

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com