Bleary-eyed and with half my attention on the clock, I scarf down a banana, some oatmeal and a glass of water, double-checking that I am not cutting it too fine, that dawn has not yet broken. Because before dawn breaks, my fast must begin. During this, the month of Ramadan, which begins today, this is the way I eat my hasty breakfast. No eating or drinking is allowed between dawn and sunset, and not even the smallest sip of water is allowed during this completely dry fast. The month lasts 29 or 30 days, depending on the lunar cycle. All around the world, for those weeks, Muslims fast, and have their own pre-fast breakfast rituals.
The pre-dawn breakfast is known as sehri (or suhur). Even though this traditional meal is meant to provide sustenance and strength for the fast ahead, I can’t abide eating a proper breakfast at such an early hour. I also can’t stand conversation while my brain wakes up from its fog, so I focus on drinking as much water as I can. When I used to live with my grandmother, she’d continue to press more and more food on me as the minutes to dawn dwindled, keeping up a steady stream of chatter. I appreciate her valiant efforts now that I am the one tasked with ensuring that my family eats enough before time runs out.
Over the years people fall into their own sehri traditions. I personally tend to eat almost exactly the same thing for the whole month, so that my brain doesn’t have to reckon with too many options so early in the day. This includes water, a date or two, cocoa pops (although some years I have opted for Weet-Bix) and a banana.. A cousin of mine once sleepily continued adding more and more Pronutro (a porridge type of cereal that comes in powdered form) to his small amount of warm milk, ending up with a brick-like mass, and no time to warm more milk.
The more die-hard eaters, those who really do love a great breakfast, forego oatmeal or toast for eggs, pastries and masala tea I’ve heard of older uncles eating fresh rotis with spicy mutton curries, oblivious to the fact that most of the world is still asleep at this holy hour. Although it probably takes dedication to wake up early enough to eat a full meal, if you’re only eating two meals a day, make it count, right?
Majority-Muslim countries or areas that have a strong Muslim presence even have restaurants open at the early pre-dawn hour to cater to this time of year. In Pakistan, for example, street cafes prepare the early breakfast while crowds mill around festively, enjoying the vibe created by these midnight feasts.
Apart from the obvious benefit of eating to fortify your body for the dry day ahead, partaking in sehri is also said to hold spiritual blessings. This is because it is a practice that was initiated in the early days of Islam by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, who is reported to have said, “Eat sehri for there is blessing in it.” It has been said that even drinking a drop of water endows the faster with, at least, the spiritual benefits of sehri.
People living in countries with longer fasting hours (for example in Iqaluit in the Arctic, summer days last as long as 20 hours) sometimes even combine the evening meal with breakfast, with a break in between for prayers. While some may awaken early (or just stay up all night) to make full use of this blessed breakfast, others scurry around in order to eat whatever they can before time runs out – because eating or drinking even a few seconds after dawn could render the fast void – and you would have to “catch-up” the missed fast after the month of Ramadan. Better to force yourself to eat the last bits of cereal as the dawn threatens outside the window.