How Observing Ramadan Shifts — and Strengthens — My Relationship With Sleep

Muslims often get less sleep during Ramadan, but the Islamic concept of qailulah, or midday napping, helps to support our sacrifice.

A hanging lantern is in focus against a blurry night sky in celebration of the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. Writer Imani Bashir writes about getting good sleep during Ramadan.
Songyuth Unkong / EyeEm / Getty Images

In Islam, the month that hosts Ramadan is the most important and blessed month on the calendar. It is the month of mercy, sacrifice, and immense blessings, following a tradition that began thousands of years ago when Muslims abstained from eating from sun up to sun down for 30 days while seeking God-consciousness through more prayer and reading. Once you hit puberty, it becomes mandated as one of the five pillars of faith you must partake in, though there are exemptions if one is sick, pregnant, elderly, or menstruating.

There are immense blessings that revolve around the practice of fasting, but there is a multitude of sacrifices we must make as well. In addition to abstaining from food and drinks during the day, observing Ramadan requires us to restructure our schedules around everything from work to worship, family, and rest. And there’s an indescribable level of lethargy that can come along with it.

For the first week of Ramadan, waking up for suhoor, or the meal eaten before dawn, is one of the hardest adjustments to make. In my adolescence, that wake-up call was a last-minute dash to eat something as fast as I could so I could pray and grab a few more bits of sleep before starting the day. But, as an adult, that time is very intentional reading and reflecting on passages from the Qur'an, quieting your mind for a period of prayer, and actually eating something that will carry your body’s energy for many hours.

Waking up early enough to do all three mindfully never seems to get easier for me, no matter how long I’ve participated, because my body is constantly telling my mind, “I’m tired.” And my mind always responds with a reminder that there’s a goal on the other side of sacrificing sleep: to please God. So when I complete suhoor in the morning, I soothe my sleepiness with Fajr, the first of the five daily Muslim prayers.

Once this prayer is completed in ‌the morning, all eating and drinking ceases until Maghrib, which is the prayer that comes directly at sunset and signifies that it is time to break the fast. For adults, this means that the time between the sun’s first appearance and its final departure are for working, parenting, praying, reading, cooking, and somewhere in between trying to find pockets of sleep in hopes of remaining as functional as necessary to complete the day’s tasks.

Despite the sacrifices in shut-eye that we make during Ramadan, sleep is a very prominent concept in my faith and is rooted in the practice of Islam. It is an activity that’s referenced in the Qur'an and in what is called hadith collections of sayings and practices that describe the Prophet Muhammad’s consistent rituals, according to his companions.

The Sahih Bukhari, a collection of hadith, features this saying from the Prophet Muhammad: “If anyone of you feels drowsy while praying, he should sleep till he understands what he is saying (reciting).” I’ve always internalized this to mean that it is better to rest the body during this time instead of pushing it through torpidity, because Ramadan requires a deep intentionality and focus that cannot be attained with that level of exhaustion. There is also an Islamic concept of midday napping called qailulah, which, according to neuroscientific research, can help improve memory and enhance alertness, wakefulness, and performance, as well as assist with recovering certain qualities of lost sleep at night. These are concepts and practices that I cling to during Ramadan, especially as a working mother who can appreciate a spiritual mandate to slow down.

I alert my employer of the fact that this time of year is approaching and that, for 30 days, the normal level of excellence that I bring to my job could be diminished due to shortened sleep and abstaining from food during the day. This allows them to be more cognizant of the tasks they set out for me so that I can still meet my goals and deadlines without overwhelm and fatigue.

My husband and I alternate school pickups and drop-offs so neither of us has to do both on a weekday. I find pockets of off-time midday to partake in qailulah. In the evening, I am very intentional about making bigger meals so we’re not preparing food daily, or so that we can share iftar, the breaking of the fast, with family and friends. In addition, as a menstruating woman, I am allowed that time to not fast nor partake in prayer, so I capitalize on that week to truly rest, sleep, and feed others who are still fasting.

For me, Ramadan is a time that reminds me of my existence and what my purpose is. It has a powerful way of asserting its presence and, although it is a disruption, it disrupts in a way that reengages Muslims with ourselves, our bodies, and our spiritual practice. It also shifts our relationship to sleep as something that is done with more gratitude and intention.