Why Muslims keep the greater fast

26 September 2007

The intense spiritual focus of Ramadan puts Christians to shame, says Ted Harrison

Devotion: prayers at the mosque in Morden PA PICTURE

Devotion: prayers at the mosque in Morden PA PICTURE

Ramadan is currently being observed by millions of Muslims around the world — the holy month of fasting, study, and prayer. Fasting is found in many religious traditions, but in Islam it is given a special importance. It is not a discipline reserved for the ultra-pious, but is a core obligation for all practising Muslims.

The observance of Ramadan puts the normal Christian observance of Lent to shame. For a whole month, daily life is shaped by the fast. Two years ago, I spent the month filming a series of documentaries with a group of orthodox British Muslims. From dawn to sunset, they abstained from eating and drinking. They needed to rise extra early in the morning to say the first prayers of the day and eat breakfast. At sunset, they broke the fast — usually in the traditional way with a date and a drink of water. Then came prayers, a family or communal meal, and an evening recitation from the Qur’an.

Our filming was based at the Brixton Mosque, with visits to the Islamic Centre in Luton. Both followed the orthodox Salafi tradition of Islam, which attempts to recreate the Muslim life as it was at the time of the first followers of the Prophet. Men and women are strictly segregated. Both sexes follow Islamic dress code, the men wearing beards and baggy trousers, women covering their heads, and some their faces, too, with the niqab.

Salafis look for guidance on practice and scriptural interpretation to the scholars of Saudi Arabia. So it was that at the start of Ramadan, in an upper room of the mosque (actually, two combined terraced houses near Brixton station), there was much interest in the internet broadcasts from the Middle East.

Ramadan can start on any one of two, or even three, days. It depends on the sighting of the first slither of the crescent moon after sunset. The young men crowded around the computer in Brixton were eagerly waiting to hear from the Saudi scholars watching the cloudless desert sky.

Most of the members of the Brixton mosque were young, and many of the leaders are graduates with important jobs in the community. I met doctors, local-authority officials, civil servants, and teachers.

So began a month of intense religious practice. Each evening around sunset, 100-200 men met for a communal meal and prayer. A smaller, but equally devout, group of women arrived at the mosque each evening. Before the men sat on the floor to eat, they passed containers of food through a curtained door to the women for their evening breakfast. Many other women were keeping Ramadan at home.

Through the month, I became aware of how other Muslims I knew were keeping the fast. When we went to Soho for meetings with the media company we had commissioned to make the title sequence for the documentaries, we were offered coffee, but the head of the company had nothing. There was no indication in her style of dress to suggest she was a practising Muslim, but she was, and she was keeping the fast.

Fasting serves several purposes. It is a physical as well as spiritual cleansing. It is a reminder of what it is like to be hungry, and encourages a new appreciation of the food God provides. “The first taste of sweetness after the day-long hunger is exquisite. The crisp coolness of water after the thirst is heavenly,” said one woman in Brixton.

If a fast is broken with a communal or family meal, it also encourages fellowship and celebration. One night, I was invited to a family home. For two hours before sunset, the kitchen was full of the smells of cooking, in preparation for a celebratory meal for family and friends. Every evening was an opportunity for a party.

Some Muslims talked of being on a spiritual high throughout Ramadan, and feeling a special solidarity with Muslims around the world.

Inevitably, not every thing about Ramadan is spiritually focused. One Middle-Eastern Muslim blogger admits to an increase in bad driving during the month. Thanks to being up all night and then deprived of food, drivers get increasingly irritable in the traffic jams, which build up as they go home to break the fast.

In Bradford, police have warned about an increase in petty crime during Ramadan. Some young people take advantage of the fact that their parents are occupied observing Ramadan, particularly during evening prayer times. This year, for the first time, officers in part of the city will be joined by mosque committee members on street patrols.

At the end of Ramadan comes the festival of Eid, the time to exchange presents and greetings, and for families to reunite. It is the day when Muslims look back on Ramadan and review their spiritual progress.

Eid in Brixton was an extraordinary day. Huge numbers came to the mosque for morning prayer. Many of the young men would have alarmed genteel middle England by their appearance. They were mainly young and black, and dressed in what the press has stereotyped as the uniform of the terrorist. Yet these young men had just completed a month of prayer, spiritual exploration, and fasting that would have horrified the average Anglican in its rigour.

There are flexibilities within Islam, and any Muslim unable to keep Ramadan, for example on medical grounds, is excused. It is an obligation that is only deferred, however. When it is once again possible to go without food, the fast must be undertaken, or money given in lieu to feed the hungry.

Muslims I spoke to about Ramadan never described fasting as a chore or penance. It was the month of the year they looked forward to more than any other. Imagine Christians saying they preferred Lent to Christmas.

Ted Harrison is a broacaster and author.

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