Lifestyle

Could you go for a month without coffee?

Ramadan challenges Muslims who have become especially addicted to caffeine this past year.

Ramadan was still more than a month away when Shabana Mir began her strict, step-by-step plan in mid-March to wean herself off coffee before the Muslim month of fasting begins.

The Illinois-based professor of anthropology started by trading in her usual 16-ounce cup of regular coffee for half-decaf brews. From there she slowly cut back her daily coffee consumption, bit by bit.

“Because I’ve started the process early, I can make it painless-ish,” said Ms. Mir, who teaches at Chicago’s American Islamic College. “I’m gradually cutting back every few days by a few sips. Sounds funny, I know.”

For many Muslims it’s no laughing matter.

Caffeine withdrawal can be debilitating for some during the first few days of Ramadan, during which Muslims don’t eat or drink from dawn to dusk. That means no coffee when people most need it: in the morning to kick off the day, or for a mid-afternoon pick-up.

So to prevent a phenomenon called “First of Ramadan Headaches,” Muslims like Ms. Mir undertake weeks of careful preparation.

Eventually, by the end of March, Ms. Mir whittled her coffee habit down to 8 ounces of decaf. Now, with Ramadan approaching around April 13, she has switched over to black tea and a bit of decaf.

During Ramadan she’ll have just a few sips of green or white tea during the predawn suhoor meal, along with her usual breakfast of an everything bagel topped with turkey bacon.

Coffee isn’t forbidden, but it presents unique challenges during the month of daylong fasts. Because Muslims eat only during dark hours during Ramadan, drinking coffee can mess with already-fragile sleep schedules. This is especially so during suhoor, after which many Muslims try to go back to sleep for a few hours before the work and school day begins.

Palestinians visit a market ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City, on April 4.
PHOTO: RIZEK ABDELJAWAD/XINHUA/ZUMA PRESS

This year is even harder for some, as pandemic stress or lockdown blues have led to increased or newly adopted caffeine habits. For others, a morning cup of coffee has become one of the few remaining daily pleasures the pandemic hasn’t taken away. That has made it all the harder to give it up during Ramadan.

Dr. Kaashif Ahmad’s daily coffee habit doubled during the pandemic. Adding to the stress Covid-19 has brought hospital personnel, the neonatologist divides his time working between hospitals in Houston and San Antonio.

“Because of the pandemic we don’t have our normal schedules, so you fall back on things you normally use to cope,” he said. “For some people it’s been food, for some people, it’s alcohol and for some people it’s caffeine.”

Normally Dr. Ahmad just goes cold turkey when it comes to caffeine for Ramadan, toughing out the few days while his body adjusts. But after a year in which his coffee consumption rose to six or more cups a day, he knew he had to have a plan.

Dr. Kaashif Ahmad enjoys his one daily cup of coffee after weaning himself down from a six-a-day habit.
PHOTO: KAASHIF AHMAD

He’s now down to one daily cup of coffee and is trying to cut back on his soda consumption as well.

Khadijah Fasetire, an 18-year-old high-school student in Dublin, picked up a daily coffee habit in lockdown.  

A fan of cooking and baking shows, Ms. Fasetire started seeing TikTok videos about a whipped coffee drink that became popular early in the pandemic and decided she had to try it. Soon she was hooked and realized she had become dependent on a daily dose of coffee.

“I always need a cup before studying as it gives me a boost,” she said. “I have important exams in June and as Ramadan is between April and May I will be studying a lot…I’m trying to prepare my body and mind for this.”

She’s trying a mix of weaning techniques, switching to decaf coffee some days and putting off her first morning cup of Joe for as long as she can.

Pre-Ramadan decaffeinating regimens appear to be more common in the West or non-Muslim countries where lifestyles don’t adapt to the side effects of fasting. In the Middle East, for instance, coffee plays a prominent role in Ramadan night culture. In normal times, friends and families enjoy large group iftaar dinners to break the fast at sundown, then often stay up for much of the night and sleep in during the day.

Muslims aren’t the only ones who suffer headaches as a result of religious fasting.

Dr. Michael Drescher, chief of emergency medicine at the Rabin Medical Center in Israel, conducted studies to test if rofecoxib, a long-lasting anti-inflammatory drug, could combat not only the Ramadan headaches but also the “Yom Kippur Headache” suffered by many Jews when they fast for 25 hours during the Day of Atonement.

Dr. Drescher says he found it effective and now uses it himself during Yom Kippur.

Some Muslims who are willing to use medication rather than pursue a drawn-out coffee withdrawal schedule simply opt for caffeine pills or pain relievers with added caffeine.

Kareem Addassi, a pharmacist and professor of clinical sciences, takes one caffeine pill and two ibuprofens during suhoor. He adopted this pill combination during his last year of pharmacy school and over the years has zeroed in on just when to take them to minimize withdrawal symptoms and maximize the lingering caffeine high from the time-release tablets.

“It’s all about getting as much caffeine before the fast begins so when your day starts, you have some caffeine in your system to function,” said the California resident.

Shelina Janmohamed at the London Coffee Festival in 2018.PHOTO: SHELINA JANMOHAMED

Without in-person meetings with colleagues, Shelina Janmohamed has drunk less coffee during the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean weaning this year is any easier.

“There’s an additional emotional challenge as well of something small that gives joy in a year that has been extremely difficult,” said the London-based vice president of Islamic Marketing at advertising agency Ogilvy. “What other simple delights do we still have?”

Ms. Janmohamed, who is the author of the memoir “Love in a Headscarf,” now savors her morning coffee to give her a lift and help break up the blur of days that seem to run together.  

Every year as she goes through the weaning process, she vows to give up coffee entirely and not just for the holy month. But when the Eid celebration approaches, marking the end of Ramadan, she and her husband begin plotting which coffee shop they’ll hit after morning prayers.

This year, she has given up on the pretense of cutting coffee out of her life completely.

“I’m already looking forward to my Eid coffee,” she said, adding that by the time celebrations begin in mid-May many lockdown measures in London will have been lifted including outdoor dining.

“So that joy will be combined with the feeling of being out and about in public and a little sip of normality,” says Ms. Janmohamed.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at [email protected]

Appeared in the April 8, 2021, print edition as ‘A Month Without Coffee? Ramadan Tests Caffeine Habits.’

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