Fasting for Ramadan has unlocked in me a new level of understanding. It’s been like opening a box and uncovering the core of Islam.
Too often, in the west, our perceptions of Islam are made up of a cacophony of shock-factor news stories and the image that’s built up over the years becomes a collage that instils fear.
I’ve done enough stints in news to know that ‘great news stories’ are tales of the extraordinary, not the ordinary. The unusual, not the usual. And so, ‘doing’ Ramadan has opened up a gate for me – the gate to Islam as lived by the majority, the gate to Islam as ordinary. The ordinary – arguably, the place where real beauty lies.
Sunday starts off with another oddity for someone fasting for Ramadan – a christening in a Catholic church followed by a celebratory meal in a posh restaurant with the nicest blooming garden I’ve ever seen. I am the only one out of a group of fifteen not eating. People say to me ‘you’re very strong’. I think to myself “I’m only learning”.
Later I drive to the Shi’a Islamic Centre in Dublin. I’m told to wear a scarf. The centre, called Hussainia, is an unassuming red-brick building in Miltown with a glass dome on its roof. It doesn’t look like a mosque.
I’m here to meet Dr. Yasmin Ali, an Iraqi born woman who came to Ireland thirteen years ago. She is very welcoming and friendly. We take off our shoes in the porch and leave them on the wooden shelves before going to the women’s section.
The women’s section is a large carpeted room with soft couch-like seats all around the walls. There is a partition of wooden doors separating it from the men’s section.
“For me, Ramadan is the most important month in the year” Yasmin says. “Believe it or not we wait for it every year and when it is finished we are sad. It’s a break from the rules – from having three meals a day – but more than just that, it is a break from everything.”
The Iftar meal is served every night in the Shi’a centre. Yasmin tells me that it’s cooked by a volunteer from the community and it’s free. The cost is covered by donations.
Most years Yasmin and her family come to the centre every night for Ramadan but this year the breaking of the fast is so late that they haven’t come. Tonight is her first night.
It’s approaching half past nine and I can’t smell any food. My stomach is grumbling. I’m getting concerned. Yasmin has told me that the food is cooked in the building and that “usually you can smell the food”. I’m starving. She sees the look of panic on my hungry face and tells me not to worry, there will be food.
The conversation returns to Ramadan. “We all look after our bodies a lot – we eat good food, exercise and go to the doctor if we are sick. But at the same time the body is not eternal. The soul is the eternal thing. So why not look after the soul as well?”
“I believe that Ramadan is a good way to discipline the soul” she continues. “You feel stronger because you can control your hunger, thirst, sexual desire. And I think it’s very important that you can control your instincts and by doing this for thirty days every year it gives more ability to control yourself and your desire”.
As prayer time approaches a few more women file in including Yasmin’s sister Jinan and Jinan’s daughter Diana. We are all chatting together. I’m the only one who is hungry. I’m starving. I’m also the only one who hasn’t lost any weight. All three of them have lost weight. Yasmin says they always make sure to eat healthy foods.
But then I hear the word “sweets” spoken by Diana who is nineteen “I crave sweets” she tells me unapologetically. “It’s probably the first thing I have when I break the fast. One day a week I would eat only sweets. It makes me happy. I’d have Raffaelo chocolate, candies, lollipops”.
“If I’m walking around and see sweets during the day I buy them and think “this is my iftar today””. Her mother does a mixture of a laugh and a sigh as though she has given up but enjoys Diana’s spirited personality at the same time.
My Ramadan calendar says sunset Sunday night is 9.42 but it’s already 9.47 and there’s no sign of food or prayers. Yasmin explains that the Shi’as calculate their sunset slightly differently to the Sunnis and as a result their breaking of the fast is around fifteen minutes later. There are other minor differences too.
The official sunset time arrives around 10.00 and Yasmin brings me a bowl of delicious lentil soup. I have a second portion, and a date and a glass of water and then the women rise for prayer.
There are just ten women, a baby and a little toddler in the women’s section. The prayer lasts a few minutes and then the food is brought out on large trays. A plastic glass of actimel-style yoghurt is served with the food which we eat on the floor.
I tell Yasmin that I find it very hot with the hijab (scarf) on my head. She says “it’s okay now to take it off” and when I do I immediately feel cooler.
A toddler crawls towards the wooden doors that separate the women from the men and starts pulling at the door. One women lets out a cry when she sees the door is about to open. A few women rush over to lift the toddler away and put a chair against the door, securing the division.
The women tell me that it’s the men who do the washing-up. Partly, they suggest, to keep the women from wandering around the building. They also say that a lot more men than women come to the centre for food because most of the Shi’a women in Ireland are married and there are a lot of single men who come for food.
After the food and conversation I head home and take a look at my blog. The number of readers has jumped after journalist Assed Baig retweeted my link. I see there are people reading it now from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, South Africa and more.
My intentions with this blog were many but one of them was to let Irish people know about Islam and about Ramadan. It seems Muslims also want to know more about non-Muslim perceptions of Ramadan and Islam. The curiosity (and fear too I suppose) works both ways. So hello to you reading this – Muslim, non-Muslim, Irish, not Irish – wherever you are!