Traditionally, Ramazan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is synonymous with faith, abstinence, prayer and a sense of community for Muslims across the globe. This year, however, the month has been particularly tumultuous. Thousands of displaced people are scrambling for food and shelter in Pakistan as a military operation razes their hometowns, millions of Muslims across refugee camps in Syria have been pushed to starvation as the deadly conflict between the rebels and pro-Assad forces enters its third year and Gaza has been turned into an overnight battle ground with Israeli forces raining down missiles on the civilian population.
But, it is in these tough times that you will also find the most heartwarming examples of tolerance, co-existence and acceptance, not just within the Muslim circle, but also among those who would normally be limited to its exterior. You just need to know where to look.
The glorious iftars of London
It is a little past eight in the evening in London and the walls of The East London Mosque are glowing in the light of the setting sun. In about an hour, Muslims all over the United Kingdom will break their fast as one of the longest and hottest days of summers comes to an end.
The East London Mosque, together with adjoining London Muslim Centre and Maryam Centre serves the largest Muslim community in the United Kingdom. PHOTO COURTESY: SARAH ALVI
Inside the Maryam Centre, a part of the mosque designated for women, Yesmine Ozcan is waiting for the maghrib azan along with some 60 other women. Ozcan moved to London from Turkey six years ago for work, and has been regularly coming to the mosque for iftars since. “It is home away from home,” she says. “I believe Muslims cannot be alone anywhere in the world, as long as they have a mosque to go to.” Two volunteers in the hall carefully place plates laden with channa chaat, a samosa, a couple of pakoras, a slice of watermelon, dates, and rice with chicken along with a water bottle in front of each attendant. In a separate part of the mosque more than 400 men will also break their fast at the sound of azan.
London hosts nearly 600,000 Muslims, according to the 2011 census, making Islam the largest minority religion of the city. While mosques and homes remain a popular traditional place for iftars, Ramazan evenings have taken an innovative turn. Muslim community centres have opened their doors to people of all faiths and flash mob iftars have sprung up in parks and high streets under the banner of a community-led initiative called The Big Iftar.
The nationwide programme was launched last year in partnership with Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board amidst incidents of anti-Muslim crimes. With over a 100 inter-community iftars planned this Ramazan, it is already a huge success. “The Big Iftar is about building relationships. The purpose is to take ownership and present Islam and its practices in a positive way,” says Mustafa Field MBE, co-founder of The Big Iftar and director of Faiths Forum for London.
A volunteer gives out the evening call to prayer at The Ramadan Tent Project. PHOTO COURTESY: SARAH ALVI
Then there is The Ramadan Tent Project. Now in its second year, this award-winning student-led project offer iftars to homeless and individuals in need along with the general public at Malet Street Garden in the heart of London. The setup is located at a stone’s throw from the campuses of SOAS, University of London and University College London and many students stop by in the evenings to share the scrumptious food. As dusk draws near, founder Omar Salha and his young team put together a white tent under the trees shade. Some volunteers neatly spread out disposable white sheets in four or five rows on the ground to serve as dastarkhwans. Other volunteers prepare food parcels inside the tent. Dates, water and neatly cut slices of watermelons are served to the arriving participants.
Everyone sits together on the ground. Haroon Ahzaz Ahmed, the social media manager for the project feels the communal seating arrangement breaks barriers and brings people closer. “Just the other day I was sitting with three Polish men. They said to me they thought Muslims were terrorists. They had no idea that Muslims could sit with non-Muslims and we could all eat together,” he recalls.
A volunteer lays out iftar at The East London Mosque. PHOTO COURTESY: The East London Mosque
But it is not only Muslims who are reaching out to other communities. Earlier this month North Western Reform synagogue opened its doors and invited Muslims for iftar under The Big Iftar initiative. Perhaps one of the most symbolic interfaith iftars took place in North West London earlier last week when a group of nearly 60 Muslims and Jews met to share the breaking of fast as the 17th day of Ramazan and the Jewish fast of the 17 Tammuz coincided. The event was closed to the public due to its sensitive timing. “Initially people were a little apprehensive of what is going to happen,” says Sef Townsend who organised the event with the help of Jewish friend, David Bash and Muslim friend, Jumana Moon. But the ice melted as the organisers sang and prayed in Hebrew and Arabic.
Muslims and Jews met to share the breaking of fast for the 17th day of Ramazan and the Jewish fast of the 17 Tammuz. PHOTO COURTESY: JUMANA MOON
Participating Muslims and Jews fasted in solidarity with the bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents. They prayed together for peace and lit candles inspired by a poem by Mahmood Darwish, “As you think of others far away, think of yourself. Tell yourself: if only I were a candle in the dark.”
Townsend who has been involved in interfaith, refugee and peace projects globally hopes there will be more of such events in the future. “I feel privileged to have shared this moment with our brothers and sisters in Islam, baruch Hashem,” he says in Hebrew, which means ‘glory to God’, then adds in a soft voice, “Alhamdolillah.”
Sarah Alvi is a graduate from The Columbia Journalism School and a passionate visual artist. She tweets @sarah_alvi
Redefining Muslim identity in New York
Every evening during Ramazan, people from all over the city get together at New York University’s Islamic Center (ICNYU) to pray, break their fast and attend taraweeh with Imam Khalid Latif, NYU’s first ever appointed Muslim chaplain. Free and open to the public, NYU’s iftar has become synonymous with being the’ interfaith gathering to engage, share and create an experience of community and family.
“It’s a no-judgment zone, and doesn’t’ feel like a heavy, demanding environment. The messages here feel more like a blessing than a preaching,” explains 47-year-old Issa Mohammad, from Egypt. And like him, many of the city’s young professionals flock to the ICNYU every weeknight to bond over a meal with like minds from diverse backgrounds.
Men and women line up at the ICNYU’s prayer room and Imam Khalif Latif leads with namaz and a message of inspiration. PHOTO: PURVI THACKER
“Most Muslims have a rigid archetype of faith and so our vision and identity veers away from encompassing the community into a particular race, culture and ethnicity, but to open it up to different spiritual and personal experiences,” says Imam Latif. In keeping with that sentiment, it is no wonder that the Ramazan committee at ICNYU strives to include variety in the food served every night. From South Asian, Mexican, Caribbean, Lebanese and Chinese cuisine options, there is a concerted effort to even have soul food and vegetarian options on the menu.
The fast is broken with the evening call to prayer, followed by a short message from Imam Latif, who addresses a variety of topics ranging from amplifying women’s rights and prayers for the Rohingya Muslim community in Burma, to Ramazan garbage wars and the importance of halal meat.
Tupperware boxes are encouraged to bring about a zero waste iftar, in hopes to minimise waste. PHOTO: PURVI THACKER
Today’s choice is Abu Bakr (RA) and rights of women, for which Imam Latif explains that this Ramazan, ICNYU has paired up with New Jersey based organisation SMILE to support women in need. The goal of the fundraiser is to raise $150,000 to provide women with job skills, loans, cars and services like counseling and mediation, and he urges the community to partake in the bake sale, through which funds will be raised.
Community service and giving back is not just monetary, points out Sumaiyah Ahmed, who runs the Ramazan Program at ICNYU. She elaborates on the green initiative and zero waste campaign that is being encouraged. In the last two weeks, the ICNYU has sold eco-collapsible neo kits or food boxes and water bottles for people to carry every day and wash and re-use. “Every week we want a reduction in waste, because as Muslims, we need to be mindful of the world we live in and make a positive environmental impact,” she says. For the 200 to 300 people attending iftar every day, this will prevent the wastage of up to 6,000 cups and around 10,000 plates.
“Everything is donation-and sponsor-based,” explains Ahmed, but judging at the varied services provided by ICNYU to foster a sense of family and community, it doesn’t look like it is difficult to garner support for occasions like Laylatul Qadr and Eid (brunch and prayer), which usually brings in up to 1,500 people.
While a line gathers at the bake sale to tend to one’s sweet tooth after a long day of fasting, a young African American woman in a hijab says, “This sense of community is what family is really like and how it should look in our discourse.” She comments on how she feels at ease in the ICNYU. “ If I had to go to any other place, I would have to think of what I am wearing. Over here, what a sister wears is not a focal point of conversation. We look at the things that matter and that’s how it should be.”
Finding pluralism in Japan
A few years ago during Ramazan, I attended the Friday prayer at a mosque in San Francisco. Enamored and clueless, I explored the scene — an alabaster agnostic among dark-skinned and bearded believers, who eyed me with wonder as we kneeled to pray.
Face down with my arms outstretched, my behind in the air and my nose smelling the prayer rug, I understood that a prostration is a submission — a concession of a humble servant to the only god, Allah. It was a gut-level challenge.
Malaysian porridge is served for the iftar dinner. PHOTO: NICOLAS GATTIG
Fast forward a few years and once again I find myself attending the Friday prayer in Ramazan, but this time at the Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan. Nearly 200 Muslims (mostly men), had gathered there for food and a sermon. Later on, as people lined up for food, the atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful. In Japan, no one frets over immigrant waves eroding their way of life and imposing the Sharia law. “Islam is growing here,” says Dr Musa Mohammad Omar, the executive director of the Islamic Center Japan. “We don’t recruit, but the mosques are full and each day people come to visit.” The conversion rate, for both men and women, has also increased, many of those being for marriage.
Japan’s relations with Islam date to the late 19th century which were the days of its political alliance with Turkey. The first signs of an actual community came with the arrival of Muslims from Russia who were fleeing the October Revolution. According to Musa, there is no reliable data, but the number of Muslims in Japan easily exceeds 100,000. And the country has gone to great lengths to make this Muslim population feel at home. A number of university cafeterias, hotels and restaurants now offer halal meal choices. There are Muslim tour guides and souvenir shops, as well as prayer rooms at airports and offices in addition to more than 100 Islamic associations in Japan.
In part, the embrace is rooted in business. As relations with China went sour, Japan eased visa restrictions for Southeast Asian nations, to offset the lost business. This boosted tourism and student exchanges from Malaysia and Indonesia to the point where more and more hijab headscarves are now dotting the Japanese urban landscape.
The Tokyo Camii mosque. PHOTO: NICOLAS GATTIG
Rahil Khan from Rawalpindi, who has been living in Japan for the past 28 years, believes that the communal aspect of Ramazan is what attracts the Japanese. “People are lonely at home,” he says. “So they come to the mosque for company, for conversation and jokes. At iftar, many Japanese show up at the mosque for free food. They follow Ramazan more than Islam — it’s like one of their festivals.”
Musa feels that the local Muslim community enjoys an idyllic diaspora. “We have no ties to any homeland politics,” he says. “At Japanese mosques there are no divisions, no problems between Sunnis and Shias. The police here are on our side, and the people are open to Islam. Whatever prejudice they may have, they get from the West.”
But not everyone is without suspicion. Khan claims that government officers keep checks on the mosque Askusa and that police keeps eye on him as he walks around neighbourhood on business. One day, he walked into a station and confronted the officers. “I went inside and said, ‘What is the problem? Let us talk about this problem! If you need something, you should come and ask.’”
No one said that diversity was easy, or even natural. Perhaps for pluralism to work, we need both curiosity and indifference — both emblematic of how Japanese approach foreignness — in equal measure. And this alabaster agnostic is cheering for that.
A previous version of this article was published in The Japan Times.
Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and freelance writer in Japan.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 27th, 2014.