As a Muslim born and bred in Britain, I often find myself stood at a crossroad, trying desperately, impossibly, to decide which identity to embrace. Am I British, or am I Muslim? They are far too frequently presented as incompatible cultures, as if the values held by one polarises the other.
So when I see British media outlets, like Metro, trying to integrate these antithetical elements of my identity, explaining: ‘When is Ramadan 2018? When does it end and why does the date change each year?’, I do feel a glimmer of hope.
But, this hope is very quickly dashed, and a new feeling of horror emerges, once I get past the byline. The article totally confuses Eid-ul-Fitr (the festival that comes after Ramadan) with Eid-ul-Adha (that which celebrates the end of Hajj – the annual pilgrimage to Makkah). I grew up celebrating both festivals of Eid. It is Eid-ul-Adha which commemorates Ibrahim’s willing- ness to sacrifice his son, not Eid-ul-Fitr, as this rather misinformed journalist seemed to suggest.
In seeking to explain the tradition of the month to the reader, who in reading the article is making the decision to be more informed about the season of Ramadan, the journalist has confused and conflated the two festivals and thus perpetuated the widespread misunderstanding of Muslim culture and practices. It doesn’t anger me they made the mistake, but rather that there was an concerted effort to inform others, and this hasn’t happened.
I shall therefore try to do what the Metro failed, and attempt to try to explain what Ramadan is.
Ramadan is a month unlike any other. For 30 days, Muslims fast from sunrise until sunset. They cannot consume any food or water during this period of roughly 16 hours. This is in order to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam – sawm, or fasting.
The other four pillars are iman, salat, zakat, and hajj, meaning belief, prayer, charity, and pilgrimage, respectively.
The idea of fasting is that all the other pillars will be strengthened too. The act of fasting reignites one belief in Allah, and Muhammed as his messenger. The act of fasting reminds us of the need for charity and caring for others, for example.
Traditionally, Muslims wake up in the early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen, and eat a meal, suhur, intended to last them the whole day.
At this time, Muslims globally make a dua (supplication): “I intend to keep the fast today for the month of Ramadan”, following which Muslims pray Fajr (the morning prayer and the first of five daily prayers).
It is not the intention of Ramadan that Muslims digress from their daily lives as a consequence of fasting. Instead, Ramadan is about self-improvement, trying to avoid those things which are sinful and harmful, and embracing that which is good.
Most importantly, Ramadan teaches Muslims the power of self-restraint. The absence of food, drink, and sexual intercourse during the daylight is meant to enable us to feel more empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Ramadan is a time of personal reflection, an opportunity to take stock on the year past and, perhaps most importantly, how we have treated other people.
In a city like Oxford, where homelessness and many of the associated social problems are so high, the need to spare a thought for our neighbour remains incredibly relevant.
However, the reward for all good actions is multiplied in Ramadan, and for those of us who aren’t perfect Muslims the act of fasting is a reminder of the other pillars of Islam.
As one’s eating pattern revolves around the sun, so too does one’s prayer. As we eat, we are reminded to pray too. These combined acts strengthen the other pillars of religion that we may often forget, or fail to fulfil to the best of our ability. As the sun sets, the fast is opened. Traditionally, Muslims open their fast with a date, and a glass of water, reciting the dua: “O Allah! I fasted for you and I believe in you and I put my trust in you and I break my fast with your sustenance.” Following this, Muslims pray Maghrib (the fourth prayer).
At mosques across the country, and indeed across Oxford, those less fortunate join in the act of opening the fast. There is a concerted effort, as we remember those less fortunate, to ensure that mosques are opened to the homeless and those without food. Everyone present, regardless of religious orientation or none, is fed.
Traditionally Muslims open their fasts together with friends and family, and with several traditional foods. For my family, this means pakoras, samosas, and other unhealthy dishes. Given that Ramadan also falls in the summer, Ben & Jerry’s for dessert is not unheard of. We’ve even been known to have a barbecue (weather permitting).
Ramadan is separated into three ashras (or trimesters), and each has its own significance to Muslims and their relationship with Allah. The first ashra are the days of mercy, the second forgiveness, and the third for seeking refuge. It is believed that the second trimester is when Allah’s forgiveness is at its height, and the third is when Muslims receive the highest reward for their prayer.
As such, as night time beckons, Muslims continue their prayer. Taraweeh is the name of the evening prayers offered during Ramadan, and it is believed that during the third trimester, one night is that of Laila-tul-Qadr. It is on this night that Allah revealed the Qu’ran to the Prophet Muhammed. It is for this reason that Muslims step up their prayer during this period – if one is to pray on the night of Laila-tul-Qadr, it is as if they prayed for 100 months.
Ramadan, then, is a chance to unite a community. To unite in the act of prayer, in worship, or in the pleasure of eating. Nowhere is this truer than in Oxford. Last year the Community Grand Iftar attracted 250 people from across Oxford. The Iftar is to be held again. This is an opportunity to not only unite Muslims and non-Muslims, but to unite town and gown, the rich and poor. In short, to unite the people of Oxford.