Ramadan in Britain: The True Face of Islam

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Ramadan, the month when Muslims refrain from food, drink, and marital relations during daylight hours, is a special time for Britain’s three million Muslims. The fasting hours are long, up to 20 hours a day because the holy month comes in the middle of a hot British summer, but the physical and spiritual rewards are worth it. Ramadan is also the month of the prayer and the Quran, when Muslims do their bests to cultivate willpower, discipline, and self-restraint. They also increase their charitable activities and empathize with the poor, needy, and destitute. In “Ramadan in Britain: The True Face of Islam,” we come to know that Ramadan isn’t just about self-sacrifice; it’s about sharing food with your family and friends; it’s about increasing solidarity with your Muslim brothers and sisters at home and abroad. With Islam and Muslims regularly demonized in the British media, Ramadan is a golden opportunity for Muslims to showcase the true Islam. We travelled around the country during the holy month of Ramadan exactly in quest of this.

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Narration: Ramadan, the month when Muslims refrain from food, drink and marital relations during daylight hours - is a special time for Britain’s 3 million Muslims. The fasting hours are long – up to 20 hours a day- because the holy month comes bang in the middle of a hot British summer. But the physical and spiritual rewards are worth it.

SOUNDBITE [English] British Muslim: “Ramadan has been a fantastic time in the sense it’s about spiritually connecting with the Lord of the heavens and the earth and detoxing your bodies.”

Narration: Ramadan is the month of prayer and the Quran, when Muslims do their best to cultivate will-power, discipline and self-restraint. They also increase their charitable activities and empathise with the poor, needy and destitute.

SOUNDBITE [English] British Muslim: “We feed people, we sit together and share food. We share food with everyone and this is part of it. Because they don’t have it we bring the food to them. They can’t come to us so we bring it to them. And that’s the whole thing about Ramadan, you share and you care.”

Narration: But Ramadan isn’t just about self-sacrifice. It’s about sharing food with your family and friends, it’s about increasing solidarity with your Muslim brothers and sisters at home and abroad, and it’s about showcasing the beauty of Islam to the non-Muslim majority living in the UK.

SOUNDBITE [English] British Muslim: “Certain headlines are putting the lives of many innocent people at risk so what can we do?”

Narration: With Islam and Muslims regularly demonized in the British media, Ramadan is a golden opportunity for Muslims to showcase the true Islam. And I’ve been travelling around the country during the holy month in search of exactly that.

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “Like many Muslim communities in majority non-Muslim countries British Muslims can sometimes be the subject of unwelcome scrutiny. Sometimes being a Muslim in Britain can feel like being under siege. So the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, can come as a welcome relief for many. A time for physical and spiritual renewal, as well as an opportunity to improve relations with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

Narration: The Hussain’s family who live in north London are getting ready to break their fast. Like British Muslims all over the country the Hussains have spent the last month fasting around 19 hours a day so the evening meal will come as a relief. Mrs Hussain is also preparing some food to take round to her non-Muslim neighbours.

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “Could you encapsulate what Ramadan means for you Zeeshan?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Zishan Hussain, British Muslim: “For me it’s reconnecting with my Lord, it’s about understanding the purpose of what is your life, which is to worship your Lord and be the best person that you can be.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “Salma, can I ask you the same question?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Salma Hussain, British Muslim: “Yeah, it’s about reprogramming, deprogramming all the bad habits that I’ve got and then reprogramming what’s required of me from my Lord… and self-discipline.”

Narration: Fasting in Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, compulsory on every Muslim who is sane and mature - male or female.It has many physical, moral and social benefits, but most importantly God has made fasting compulsory so that Muslims become pious, fearing and God-conscious.

SOUNDBITES [English] Amara Hussain: “Five little juicy dates sat on a shiny plate during the month of Ramadan yum yum”

SOUNDBITE [English] Zishan Hussain, British Muslim: “We know that the shaytaans are locked up during this month and for me that’s definitely something that I notice, it becomes a lot more easier to pick up the Quran, to spend a little bit more time on the Quran. And you notice small habits changing so when you’re on the tube like on my phone I’ll get the Quran out, I’m much more likely to get the Quran out and start to read as I’m say commuting … because you’re sort of waiting for the time when you open your fast you realize that you can use this time to do things that are better than just wasting time watching TV or Facebook or whatever.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Salma Hussain, British Muslim:: “I made Ramadan gift bags for my neighbours, my non-Muslim neighbours and I distributed them with a little note saying what Ramadan means to us. In terms of my Muslim community we’ve had a lot of Ramadan iftaar invites so we’ve been going to them.”

Narration: It’s time to break the fast during a meal which is known as iftaar. I join my hosts in a lovely and refreshing Asian dinner. Often Muslims will over-eat at this time to compensate for what they’ve been missing out on, but the correct Islamic etiquette is to fill two-thirds of your stomach with food and drink and leave the last third empty. Tonight at least, I think we’ve stuck to that.

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SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “The Quran is a sort of unifying factor for Muslims of all different traditions, sects and cultures. All Muslims believe it’s the literal, unchanging Word of God and they strive to live their lives according to its strictures. Now the recitation of the Quran is considered something of an art form all across the Muslim world.”

Narration: Ramadan was the month during which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and many Muslims will attempt to recite the whole book before the month ends.The very act of fasting is prescribed in the Quran so that – the holy book says - believers can learn piety.The rules of fasting are also set out in its pages with those unable to fast due to illness, travelling and old age exempt. This is because God intends ease for us.

SOUNDBITE [English] Sayed Jalal Masoomi, Quran Reciter:“The message of the Holy Quran is to guide the human being, that is the book of guidance, that is the book of guidance to the whole universe, not just Muslims, because this book is not written by a person, it is the book of Alaah subhana wa ta’aala from a secure source. It is the book of the past, the book of the present and the book of future.”

Narration: Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years. The holy book emphasizes the duty of mankind to worship, fear, love and obey the one God who created the heavens and the earth. The God of Muhammad, Jesus and Moses.If the Quran’s central message is monotheism, it also teaches Muslims how to live a good life which will ultimately grant them entrance into Paradise and how to avoid the sins which will consign them into Hell. During the month of Ramadan, prayer is also a priority for Muslims.

Believers are required to pray five times a day even outside of Ramadan, but during the holy month Muslims will often perform additional prayers, especially in the mosque.

Again, the prayer is a combination of movements and gestures which symbolize submission to God, as well as Quranic recitation which reminds believers of His holy Words.

SOUNDBITE [English] Muhammed Zeeshan, Director at Minhaj -Ul- Quran London: “This is the month of revelation of Quran so He wants us to attach yourself with Quran. Because the rewards are multiplied in the month of Ramadan. He has given the attraction to the people. If you read normally you will be rewarded 19 times but in this month you will be rewarded 70 times.

People think that if you are thirsty, if you do not eat and you do not drink that is fast. No. There is a fast of your stomach, there is a fast of your eyes, there is a fast of your ears, there is a fast of your tongue, there is a fast of your hands, and there is a fast of your food as well. Like the whole body should be fasting not just your stomach. If you’re hungry and you’re still abusing people Allah says I have nothing to do with your thirst.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Muhammed Ali Shomali, Islamic Center of England: “This is the time when we spend more time on ourselves. Because the rest of the year we may be very busy with our day to day work but in the month of Ramadan our physical activity … some of our contacts reduce so that we have more time for our contemplation, prayer, recitation and being with the community.”

Narration: Ramadan is a time for communities to come together. Every night at dusk the fast is broken, most often with family and friends or in the mosque. It’s a great opportunity for people who don’t see each other much the rest of the year to get together, and it’s also a time when Muslims belonging to different sects unify.

SOUNDBITE [English] Raza Nadim, Sunni Muslim: “I’m trying to think back have I ever been to a Shia mosque? I don’t think I have been. I know there are some slight variations in prayer and I know that the timings for iftaar are a bit different but that’s it, that’s the extent of my knowledge actually about Shias but then Shias are a vast… you know there are many different schools but I don’t know much about Shias. So yeah let’s see what happens.”

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Narration: Raza Nadim is a Sunni Muslim, which means he belongs to the majority sect of Islam. But tonight he’ll be breaking his fast at a Shia mosque, Islam’s minority sect.

Sunnis and Shias share a belief in the major tenets of Islam, such as God, the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, but they may differ on other details of Islamic jurisprudence and history.

In general the two sects have co-existed in relative peace throughout Islamic history – with some exceptions of course – but with political events in the Middle East currently at boiling point, sectarian tensions can sometimes spill over.

SOUNDBITE [English] Muhammed Ali Shomali, Islamic Center of England: “Without having unity we would not be able to face our challenges and indeed would just be challenging ourselves internally and exhausting ourselves without being able to reach any conclusion.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Qari Asim, Leeds Makkah Mosque: “What terrorist groups want to do, they want to create divisions among the Muslims, they want to create an ‘us and them’ situation between the Muslims and then also between the Muslims and the wider community. And if we are fighting among ourselves then that really makes them a winner. And we believe in the same God and we believe in the same Holy Quran and those that believe in the same scripture then those are part of the creed of Islam. And the concept of takfir is absolutely a cancer in Islam, it’s eating us away.”

Narration: Shia Muslims break their fast a few minutes later than Sunni Muslims do and they tend to combine the sunset prayer and the night prayer – called Maghrib and Isha in Arabic – unlike Sunnis.But these minor differences between the sects don’t seem to bother Raza much.

SOUNDBITE [English] Raza Nadim, Sunni Muslim: “It’s different, there are a lot of similarities you see in the way people pray, some similarities, I didn’t realize they combine the ishaa as well, I thought that they had a taraweeh prayer but I’m guessing that doesn’t happen. And the food was good. Better than my local mosque that’s for sure.Right now you see Muslims being attacked left, right and centre. The last thing you want to see is Muslims fighting among each other. And a lot of it is misunderstanding. You know earlier they were doing the recitation of the Quran, there was no difference. It’s all the same, people sitting there remembering God, glorifying the prophet. There are so many similarities I knew there were similarities but to see them in action it kind of breaks the mental barrier … and I think for a lot of Muslims who are quite hardline sectarian on both sides of the camp, I think they should go to different mosques because you then realize that we’re not that different and we all like our food at iftaar time.”

Narration: Islam is probably the most demonized religion in Britain and Muslims are regularly the subject of negative media headlines, usually associated with extremism and terrorism. Faced by this onslaught it can be difficult for Muslims to get their side of the story across, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “Ramadan is perhaps the best time of year for Muslims to showcase their religion and that’s exactly what several initiatives across the UK have done such as the Ramadan Tent here in central London which welcomes up to 300 Muslims and non-Muslims every night to break the fast. And the idea behind these initiatives is very simple, that intimate human contact can break down barriers like nothing else.”

Narration: The Ramadan Tent project is run by student volunteers and adopts a gentle, non-confrontational, even subliminal approach when showing non-Muslims what Islam is. It seeks to demonstrate the values of Islam by setting an example instead of preaching. To build bridges between cultures and encourage inter-faith dialogue through the simple act of sharing a meal.

SOUNDBITE [English] Ahmed Ghoneim, British Muslim:“We’ve been able to foster a platform for inter-faith dialogue to be able to explain the actual beautiful values of our religion and through the community spirit most of all I think when you look and you see people of all different colours and races sitting on the floor eating together I think that’s what it’s about.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Heidi Evans: “I grew up religious so when I came across what was going on I was really intrigued by the act of fasting and praying so I wanted to learn more, and the experience of meeting the best people who I’ve ever… some of the best people I’ve ever met who have such sincere intentions, it made me want to get involved and learn more about what they were doing here and what Ramadan means.”

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Narration: Every night during the month of Ramadan a different speaker gives a short talk here to everyone gathered. Then after the maghrib or sunset prayer, the fast is broken with rice, meat, fruit, deserts and tea.Sometimes Islam won’t crop up in conversation at all, but friendships are built, curiosity is aroused and perhaps stereotypes would have been broken.

SOUNDBITE [English] Heidi Evans: “I grew up as a Mormon, Latter Day Saints, so I think I really identified with the Muslim community by their standards, not drinking alcohol and fasting and things like that, so I didn’t really have any negative perceptions but I think being involved in the community helps me understand the Muslim community even more and to be able to share that with my community back in the States.”

Narration: Steven Mills and Steve Smith are getting a sneak preview of the feast that awaits them in a few hours time.These two non-Muslim teachers from Oldham in the north of England have been fasting all day as part of an initiative called Share Ramadan, the brainchild of Nanu Miah, another teacher.It’s around 5.30pm so they’ve already been fasting around 17 hours. But they’ve still got four hours to go.

SOUNDBITE [English] Steven Mills, Teacher: “You know working in such a high Muslim school I thought it would be a brilliant experience for me to see what not only the colleagues that I have but the kids that I teach go through. I just thought it would give me a bit of an insight into what they go through and understanding.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host:So how’s it been for you so far? So you didn’t get up for breakfast, first mistake right?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Steven Mills, Teacher: “I ate at about 11.30 last night and I woke up at about 2am and took about four pints of Vimto… but no I didn’t wake up. I’m not feeling too bad actually, I thought hunger would be the big thing because I’ve got quite a healthy appetite but it’s been the thirst that’s really challenged me.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “Do you know much about Ramadan? Why Muslims fast?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Steve Smith, Teacher: “This is my second year doing it and I’d say that the first reason I did it was coming from my background I had very little idea about Muslim religion, about Ramadan, the importance of it, why do it so the first thing is I wanted to know more about it that was my first reason for even doing it.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “And how are you finding it?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Steve Smith, Teacher: Not too bad, hunger has been ok. At Lunchtime, walking around watching some people eat that was a bit difficult, I kinda had to turn away from that. Thirst is the main one, after about 10 or 11 it started to kick in, I’d love a glass of water and you sometimes go to reach for it and you think no I can’t.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “Challenge, invite, share. Share Ramadan.”

Narration: Share Ramadan has become something of a social media phenomenon. Challenge a non-Muslim neighbour or colleague to fast for a day, break fast with them, and share the moment and experience on social media. It’s got non-Muslims all across Britain experiencing the Ramadan fast.

SOUNDBITE [English] British Muslim: “First day I’m always told is the hardest fast of the month anyway.”

SOUNDBITE [English] British Muslim: “I was approached by one of my colleagues Nanu Miah to take part in the challenge.”

SOUNDBITE [English] British Muslim: “It’s a great way to get to know people of course.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Nanu Miah, British Muslim: “Share Ramadan started when the Muslim community were getting a lot of bad press, one thing I realised you know the media is not on our side, saying so much things and certain headlines are putting the lives of many innocent people at risk. So what can we do? You know you have children what do you want to leave them behind? Wealth? Money? Why not a society that is just, that is fair, that is safe? And that will only come about when there is an understanding and the barrier of fear and suspicion, when they have disappeared from our society.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Steven Mills, Teacher: “For me it’s about sacrificing things that you take for granted every day like people struggle for water and I can just go and get one at any time, a glass of water, a drink of water any time I want. People struggle for food but you know at the end of this I know I’m going to sit down with 10 or 12 friends and have a lovely meal.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Steve Smith, Teacher: “Before I started working in the job that I’m in now all I knew about the Muslim faith was what I read, typically on media and newspapers whatever it be. Then I’ve actually become friends with them and I’d like to think with Nanu he’s actually invited me into his house to do Share Ramadan, not only have I found out about the Muslim culture but I’ve become closer with him, with other friends so we can talk about anything it doesn’t have to be about Muslim but it just means that there’s not that kind of them and us type of culture.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

Narration: Nanu lays on a delicious Bangladeshi meal in his front room, enough to satisfy any appetite, while around a dozen Muslims and non-Muslim colleagues and friends laugh and joke.

SOUNDBITE [English] Nanu Miah, British Muslim: “Oh Allah let us understand one another, Oh Allah remove suspicion and fear from our society.”

Narration: Finally it’s time to tuck into the food. Steven and Steve are obviously very relieved men.

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “It’s the last Friday of Ramadan and thousands of Muslims are preparing to march through the streets of central London condemning Zionism and supporting the Palestinian resistance struggle, as they do every year during the annual al Quds march. Now Ramadan is obviously mostly associated with spirituality and quiet reflection, but it’s also a time when Muslims increase their efforts to promote justice in the public arena.”

Narration: This year’s Jerusalem Day march took place a year after Israel’s war on Gaza which killed over 2,000 Palestinians and devastated the infrastructure of the besieged territory.

The Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and aggression has always been at the centre of Islamic politics and has unified Muslims from different nations and traditions since Israel was created.

SOUNDBITE [English] Protesters: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”

Narration: The march climaxed outside the US embassy in London where, again, the centrality of the Palestinian cause for Muslims around the world was emphasized.

SOUNDBITE [English] Muhammed Araghi of Islamic Student Association: “And today the people of Muslim countries around the world stand shoulder to shoulder with moral seeking people in the support of the Palestinian nation and gather in the streets to remind people of the barbaric crimes and atrocities of the occupying Zionist regime.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Mick Napier, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign: “Zionist is a criminal conspiracy, a colonising project which will only be complete with the disappearance of the Palestinian people.”

Narration: This year’s Ramadan also saw the high profile launch of an attempt by a Sufi Muslim group to counter the takfiri ISIL narrative which has attracted a tiny minority of British Muslims. Pakistani scholar Tahir ul Qadri unveiled a draft school curriculum in London which condemned ISIL and extremist ideology.Qadri, who has previously declared takfiris non-Muslim - said it was essential to teach people that terror was a violation of Islam.

SOUNDBITE [English] Muhammed Tahir- Ul- Qadri: "Whatever philosophy and ideology is being propagated and practiced and enforced by ISIS or other terrorist organizations - in the past it was al-Qaida and the Taliban and all those people - this is just an enemy and violation of Islam, and the Koran, and the Prophet's conduct."

Narration: The initiative wasn’t without its critics within the Muslim community itself who said that it placed the emphasis on the Muslim community to clean up its act while downplaying major factors behind radicalization such as British foreign policy, Islamophobia and racism.Nevertheless, there is general consensus amongst British Muslim leaders that the ISIL mentality and the takfiri narrative needs to be driven out of the community.

SOUNDBITE [English] Qari Asim, Leeds Makkah Mosque: “Ramadan has been a very difficult and challenging time for Muslims, we’ve had killings in Kuwait, we’ve had murder taking place in Tunisia and other parts of the globe so that really affected the Muslims living in this country, in Leeds, because our name has been tarnished, our faith’s been abused, those who commit murder in the name of God they are absolutely an affront to human dignity and an insult to God.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Roshan Muhammed Salih, Host: “As the holy month of Ramadan draws to a close British Muslims will really look forward to the festival of Eid. Now Eid lasts one or two days and is characterized by lots of socializing, delicious food and fun activities for the children. It’s a joyful occasion which marks the end of a month of really hard self-sacrifice. And British Muslims will really hope that they can carry forward the lessons they’ve learned during the month of Ramadan and implement them during the course of the rest of the year.”


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