Muslims around the world are currently in the middle of Ramadan — a month of fasting and charity — and the Muslim community in Newfoundland is no exception.
Ramadan, the most holy month in the Islamic calendar, is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, and one of the most important parts of Islamic life.
While many non-Muslims know it only as a time in which food and drink are not permitted during daylight hours, Ramadan is not just a fast for the body. It is a deeply spiritual time, in which Muslims give up bad habits, attempt to do more good and consequently find inner peace and grow closer to God.
“Ramadan is very special to us. It’s a gift from our god,” said Hossam Bakr, a master of civil engineering student at Memorial University.
“For me it’s a special month and it’s something that I look forward to and it’s something that I miss when it’s gone. It offers me a chance to get closer to God and to observe the things that you don’t observe every day,” said Niya Tewfik, an engineering student and volunteer with the Muslim Students’ Association at Memorial University.
For Tewfik, fasting gives her an opportunity to reflect, be thankful and empathize with the less fortunate.
“Today, I was passing through the University Centre and I could smell literally every ingredient to the food, and I was just thinking if I couldn’t afford to buy those foods, that’s how I would feel every day. You get to see the feeling that other people have. You grow empathy towards people and you start wasting food a lot less.”
Ramadan is a time to refrain from all negative things — swearing, gossiping, smoking — and try to be a better person overall.
Muslims try to pray more, be more charitable and do more good deeds for others. It is Islamic teaching that all positive acts during Ramadan are equivalent to 70 of the same acts outside of the holy month.
“Every year what you try to do is get stronger spiritually and stronger religiously,” said Tewfik. “You try to get better as the years go along. Most things hold, some things don’t. And if they don’t, you try to do it a little bit more the next year.”
“Spiritually you get a lot of benefit: peace of mind, you feel connected to God, you feel connected to your Muslim community. It makes you feel happier,” said Mansoor Pirzada, president of the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s one month of everyone holding their fire,” said Bakr. “So when they come out from Ramadan they start thinking, if I can do that for one month, why don’t I do that the whole year? If I felt happy, why don’t I do that the whole year and feel happy the whole year?”
While not eating during daylight hours may seem tedious, for the Muslim community, it is something to look forward to.
The common consensus is that fasting during Ramadan, while sometimes challenging, is never a hardship.
“It is challenging, but it’s worth it. Sometimes we might complain and say, ‘Oh, I’m so hungry,’ but we’re choosing not to eat,” said first-year MUN student Katherine Hillier. “We feel full, but we’re not eating. Everybody’s around and it’s a really nice time of the year.”
“Sometimes you feel tired, but that does not mean that you say, ‘Oh, I’m fasting. I will not go to work or cut corners anywhere,” said Pirzada. “A lot of people take some time off, not because they’re fasting, but because they want to dedicate that time to prayers, to doing more for themselves religiously. It’s not like you’ll take time off because you’re tired or feeling low. In fact, it’s the opposite. We look forward to having Ramadan. We look forward to welcoming Ramadan. Before it even starts a lot of people start fasting in anticipation and happiness that Ramadan is coming because for us, it is a gift from God.”
Ramadan is also a very social time for Muslims. It is a chance to meet new people and bond with the community.
Every weekday during Ramadan, members of the Muslim community at Memorial University gather at sunset to join in iftar, the evening meal in which they break the day’s fast. People pray together before joining in food and drink provided by the Muslim Students’ Association. The gatherings are extremely popular, often drawing up to 90 people.
“Muslims are pretty close anyway. We always gather together at the mosque and stuff, but during Ramadan everyone comes closer and it’s really nice,” said Hillier.
“Even if we don’t know each other, we know we’re sisters and we all know Islam. Even though we’re from different countries and speak different languages we’re all united for the same reason,” said Sarah Ayoub, a first-year PhD candidate in physics. “We’re all fasting for the sake of God.”
“In a society like this, if you’re doing everything on your own, after a while it can get pretty hard,” said Alan Hillier. “But if I know this guy’s going to be there and eat food with me, and I know we’ve both been fasting today, it’s really easy to show up.”
The iftars are open to everyone, Muslim or not.
“I decided to each day invite one friend of mine to show them that as Muslims we are not terrorists, like the media sometimes shows us,” said Bakr, “We are human. We have love for everyone. We don’t worry if you are Christian, Jewish or whatever. We need peace for everyone.”
The Muslim Students’ Association also hosts “fast-a-thon” days, when non-Muslim friends are invited to fast with the Muslim community and join in iftar at the end of the day.
“The month isn’t just about the spiritual, it’s also about being thankful for what you have. You don’t take food or water for granted. So even non-Muslims can do it,” said Katherine Hillier.
This year, the Muslim Students’ Association wants to integrate the fast-a-thon with fundraising for Gaza. They hope to have the next one on July 21.
While young children do not take part in fasting, Muslims say most children are excited to become of age and join their families.
“You grow into it,” said Tewfik. “You might be allowed to fast one day, you start getting used to the fasting and then one year you fast the whole month.”
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims take part in Eid al-Fitr, a day of celebrations filled with feasting, socializing, gift-giving and camaraderie.
“It’s really big party with a lot of food. It’s awesome,” said Katherine Hillier.
“As much as it’s exciting for us, it makes us a bit sad because we love Ramadan and we don’t want it to end,” said Ayoub. “This is the time of the year we feel like better people. We just wish all of our life is Ramadan.”
Ramadan began June 29 and ends July 29.