There is beauty in the shared experience of Ramadan

I visited Muslim communities across the UK and saw why it is such a special period for so many

London Mayor Sadiq Khan at opening of 2024 Ramadan Lights
London Mayor Sadiq Khan takes selfies in the crowd ahead of the open Iftar in Trafalgar Square. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Year after year, the month of Ramadan begins and ends with the two same questions: “has the moon been spotted?” and “what day is Eid going to be?”  This uncertainty quickly passes and every day a routine establishes itself as we all break our fasts with dates and water. 

There is real beauty in the shared experience of this holy month. It is a special time of the year, not just for the four million Muslims in the United Kingdom but for a quarter of the planet, all of whom have been fasting from before sunrise until sunset while united by the challenges Ramadan brings. The holy month brings all Muslims together by providing a commonality and feelings we can all share. 

My Ramadan has been totally different this year. As part of my research for a new documentary, I have spent the month visiting different British Muslim communities across the UK, learning how they mark this month and why it is such a special period for so many. 

As the month began, the West End of London was lit up with Ramadan Lights for the second year running — a luminous display that was not around when I was growing up. As a large crowd of hundreds of people gathered to watch London’s mayor Sadiq Khan switch the lights on, everyone I spoke to mentioned how the event made them feel accepted by the country. Including Khan himself, who told me he felt a huge sense of pride seeing the lights go up. 

While the lights are a symbol of diversity and community cohesion, I heard similar stories around the UK. 

In Bradford, for example, home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the UK, I visited a secondary school to see how Ramadan affected teaching methods. I was introduced to a non-Muslim member of staff who chose to observe Ramadan so that he could better understand the challenges faced by his pupils during the holy month. Similarly, in a mosque in Aberdeen, where I was lucky enough to perform Itikaf, a spiritual retreat, organisers went out of their way to make me Bengali food for my morning suhoor. 

I had a similar experience while attending an iftar for Muslims and non-Muslims held by the Ramadan Tent Project event at the Tate Modern in London. I sat with a convert, a non-Muslim and a British-born Muslim, which might sound like the start of a bad joke, but was one of the most memorable meals I had all month. We shared tales of work, reflected on Ramadan and agreed that public iftars are important in helping to bring people together. 

From my travels, I have been struck by the fact that Ramadan unites people in a way that few other moments do. From teachers to elite athletes, everyone has a similar experience of Ramadan. 

Jordan Ayew, a forward for Premier League side Crystal Palace, spoke to me about the challenges of competing at the highest level and pushing his body while fasting. He spoke about the mental strength and resilience it provides.  When I asked the club doctor if there were any performance issues for players who are going without food and water, he said the determination it fosters among elite athletes means there is little to no difference in their physical output. I spoke to several players at Palace who were observing Ramadan, and the strength of community I witnessed was an example of how this time of year brings people together, even in unusual circumstances. 

Growing up in London, I took Ramadan for granted. It was a period that would come around once a year and I would go through the motions, enjoying the time without thinking about its purpose. But interviewing people this month has made me aware that it forces people to think about themselves, their family and friends and their faith in a way nothing else can. 

My journey has made me fall even more in love with Ramadan. Speaking to Muslims up and down the country has also made me realise that all of us use the month to reset our relationship with Islam and return to who we want to be. 

ITV’s Ramadan: A Journey across Britain is on ITV1 on Wednesday 10 April at 22:45, and available on catchup on ITVX.

Shehab Khan is an award-winning presenter and political correspondent for ITV News

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