Ramadan and midsummer coincide this year, making the fasting days their longest, with nineteen hours between suhoor (meal at dawn) and iftar (breaking fast at sunset).
The long fast fits with what has been an intense month in London. A sticky heat has lingered over the city these past four weeks, with the threat of a storm that eventually broke at the dawn of referendum day.
During Ramadan, the faith identity of British Muslims is more prominent than usual, as observing the fast goes so boldly against the habits of a materialist, individualist society that it can’t help but be noticed.
Sadiq Khan highlighted this at the start of the month when he hailed Ramadan as the time to harness that attention and use it to “break down the mystique and suspicion surrounding Islam.”
I’ve often felt a little uneasy at the idea that Muslims should be required to justify their faith because of terrorism, the same way I would feel if I had to prove I had no interest in throwing plastic chairs or pushing people down the stairs because it’s what my country’s football hooligans like to do. But undeniably, there is a value in making the most of the extra attention on the Muslim community to reclaim Islam’s public image.
London’s Ramadan has been markedly open and inclusive this year. From West London Synagogue’s ‘Big Iftar’, to the Ramadan Tent in Malet Gardens, to the ‘Big Gay Iftar’ in solidarity with Orlando, every evening of the week there are opportunities for Londoners to break the fast together.
My first iftar this year was at a Shia mosque in North Harrow where I’d been invited to give a talk. Prayers and qur’anic recitation were followed by a viewing of the mosque’s new building- an ambitious project including a multi-faith prayer room, community centre and gym. Over food, I chatted with a group of women my own age about university, the challenges of the generation gap and the beauty of Arabic. And although it feels almost too obvious to declare this mosque’s positive role within their community, since it is still a rare experience for a non-Muslim to visit a British mosque, it feels worth spelling it out just in case.
Perhaps the Muslim community in London are ahead of the game when it comes to inclusivity.
The Saturday after, I went to an iftar night of dub poetry and story-telling in Finchley Road. The event was one product of a long established collaboration and friendship between Muslim and Jewish artists. It was a jubilant, warm-hearted evening of singing and chatting with strangers, bringing people together through music and the shared experiences of faith.
Speaking about Jerusalem, Nic Schlager of the West London Synagogue summed up the feeling of the evening nicely, “there’s something about London that has much greater potential as a city of peace.”
The Inclusive Mosque
Friday afternoon in Bethnal Green, a group of Muslim men and women gather in a community centre to pray at the end of a terrible week.
Inclusive Mosque Initiative has attracted world media attention from press unable to resist a headline about the world’s “first feminist, LGBTQ-friendly mosque.” But the meeting is so in tune with London’s normal levels of open-mindedness that those aspects don’t particularly register as what’s most important.
The atmosphere is open, welcoming and down-to-earth. Muslims and non-Muslims sit on the floor together, and many in the congregation speak with an openness about themselves that is rare to find in London, in particular as reflections and prayers are shared for the Orlando victims and for MP Jo Cox.
IMI is a proactively inclusive organisation. The muezzin’s call-to-prayer is accompanied in sign language. A dad sits with his babbling baby singing along to the recitation. Men and women pray shoulder-to-shoulder.
Yet I do still notice feeling self-conscious as a non-Muslim in the group. This certainly isn’t because of anything that anybody has said or done; it is explicitly clear that I am welcome whether I am a Muslim or not. But once the meeting is over and I have time to reflect, I see that I was preventing myself from relaxing completely by holding on to the idea that, as a non-Muslim, I was different.
Maybe you have to let go of your own identity a little to fully understand someone else’s.
“Have you thought about fasting?” One friend asks later. Of course I had. But I’d decided it was too much of a gimmick to copy someone else’s religious traditions as an act of solidarity. I reconsider. Maybe it’s a way to deepen my understanding.
My fast begins with that roar of thunder at 2am on Thursday. I eat a bowl of branflakes to see me through the day and watch a few Youtube videos on ‘how to perform salah’. Prayer begins at 2.52am and I kneel with my forehead touching the ground and stay crouched for a few moments, enjoying the calm.
One meaning of Islam is ‘submission’. The humility to be kneeling in acknowledgement of something bigger than yourself.
The rest of my fasting day is a little less straight-forward. Plans to meet a friend at the Ramadan Tent are scuppered by the storm and I sit waiting for him in Euston, watching a group of women in hijabs gather and leave. I pass an empty hotel restaurant where two waiters sit ready for sunset with Tupperware boxes and a plate of dates.
In the end maghrib (sunset) falls for me while waiting for the traffic lights to change on Euston Road and I break my fast with half a cereal bar I found in my pocket.
The next day I’m invited to a Sufi meeting in Angel. This time I take part in everything, not bothering too much about whether I’m a Muslim or not. We break fast with watermelon and tortellini. A hopeful and grounding evening at the end of a tumultuous week.
The Muslim community should not be left to answer to Islamophobia alone; it is everybody’s responsibility.
Tolerance and respect are important but they are not enough if they keep us at a distance from one another. We all have a responsibility to proactively overcome the insipid effect of casual prejudice.
I cringe at the idea of ‘religious tourism’ and this definitely isn’t a call for everyone to observe Ramadan. But this month is a unique opportunity for non-Muslims to share in some way in a religious celebration that is now a part of mainstream British culture, and that brings with it a richness of tradition, community and festivity that is open to everyone.