Eid Mubarak

A belated ‘Eid Mubarak’ to all my readers! I hope you have been having a fantastic time with your friends and family over the past couple of days. For my part, I had a fairly quiet Eid. I spent Friday at work, as normal. A colleague had tried to persuade me to ask for the day off for religious reasons, but I said that as I am the fasting atheist I didn’t feel that my case was particularly strong! Yesterday I went along to Trafalgar Square for the celebrations there, only to find out that the Mayor of London, in his wisdom, has decided to hold them next Saturday. Makes sense… thanks Boris! Once again I felt that I was stuck between the two cultures slightly. For most atheists, Eid has passed them by, and all of my Muslim friends were with their families celebrating (Fatima’s family had really kindly asked me to celebrate with them in Edinburgh but unfortunately I already had plans that I couldn’t cancel).

I’ve found it surprising how quickly I’ve gone back to eating and drinking without really thinking about it. I have to say that fasting has given me a renewed sense of gratitude for the simple things that I would normally take for granted, like being able to drink water whenever I need to. In fact, on Friday I found that by mid-afternoon I had actually forgotten to drink water pretty much all day (though I’d had a cup of tea in the morning). I’ve almost had to reacclimatise. But three days later it feels funny to think that just a few days ago I was fasting for 19 hours a day. It’s kind of surreal. In terms of my relationship with food, it has certainly taught me that I don’t need it as much as I think I do. I’ve let go of that worried feeling of trying to plan things around meal times – if I get hungry, I’ll be hungry, and that won’t be the end of the world. And I plan on eating smaller portions, because I now feel full quite quickly.

Lots of people have asked me what I have learnt from the experience, but it’s quite hard to pin down. Yes, I have learnt lots of factual things about Islam – what time the prayers are, what some of the rituals are and what the Quran says. But I think what I have really learnt goes much deeper than that. I think, if I am honest, that I was in danger of becoming an atheist that tolerates rather than understands. I don’t think I was ever in danger of having views as extreme as those expressed in my blog on ‘Islam and Atheism’ (that makes a change, doesn’t it, the atheists being called extremists, rather than the other way round). Nevertheless, there have been times when my failure to understand why someone believes something in the Quran or the Bible has left me with some kind of smug inner sense that they are wrong and I am right. Yet the way that people have interacted with my comments in the blog, particularly some of my close Muslim friends, has left me impressed. They engage with their religion in a way that is thoughtful and analytical. Most importantly, they do not speak with one voice but instead a multitude of voices and opinions. This seems to me to be something that is drastically lacking in how Muslims are represented in the media – as if there is one Muslim perspective, or one type of Islam. Not only are there different sects of Islam (something, ironically, banned in the Quran), but there are different interpretations depending on the culture and the individual. We need to make sure that we remember this when we speak about Muslims and when we represent them, in whatever way.

Secondly, fasting provided me with a sense of purpose, and a feeling that I was part of something bigger than myself. It gave me a sense of resolution and achievement that I haven’t felt in a long time, if ever. Even if it didn’t necessarily make me feel closer to God (I’m afraid I’m still a non-believer), it made me feel connected to some kind of higher purpose. Perhaps, in my case, this was nothing more than a complete conviction that more needs to be done to bridge this false divide that seems to be arising between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the awareness that this project, in whatever small way, seemed to be achieving that. In addition, I felt a connection to a community. The enthusiasm for the blog from Muslims I think confirms my original suspicion that not enough efforts are being made to understand what motivates them, and why they hold the beliefs that they do. Religion should not be a taboo – we should be able to talk about it openly and analyse it critically. Writing the blog has made me feel not just part of the Muslim community for a brief period of time, but also with those in the blogsphere who are trying to encourage that kind of critical thought.

On that note, I want to take this chance to thank all of the people who have shown such support and enthusiasm for the blog. Most particularly, Fatima and her family, Zainab, Myra, Natalya, Hassan and, of course, my own family (my Aunt has shared every single blog post!). They have supported me from near and far, provided helpful and informative blog comments, shared, contributed and kept my ignorance in check. Thank-you! But I feel I should also mention some of the online community who have helped the blog reach nearly 8,000 hits, people that I know often only by their twitter handles – @julianbond12, @InterfaithRam, @SaritaAgerman. Also, of course, Baroness Warsi, whose retweet saw the blog’s stats take a leap and the Ramadan Tent, probably the only place where I got to feel a physical sense of community this Ramadan. I can’t forget, of course, my neighbour Smoky, who is currently standing outside and waving at me, not just for his generosity, but just for being there day in and day out! Lastly, my boss Simon, who even attempted to create a twitter account to send me a message of support, but described the experience as ‘distressing’ when he couldn’t figure out how to tweet. It’s the thought that counts! I am incredibly grateful to all of them.

The experience has given me a much greater understanding of the motivations of many Muslims, not just in Ramadan, but in general. Fasting for a month may have been an extreme way to achieve this, but it has helped me to go beyond ‘tolerance’ and into understanding. Most importantly, I have huge amounts of respect for those that fast not just this year, but every year. It is both physically and mentally gruelling, and I am incredibly impressed by their commitment. Would I do it again? I think probably not – I’m not sure my body could take it, it was starting to feel so beaten towards the end. But am I pleased that I did it? Incredibly so. I feel a fantastic sense of achievement, but, most importantly, I think I am a bit closer to that respect and understanding that I set out to obtain.


Natalya’s Story

I first met Natalya* in my Urdu beginners’ class last September. We went round the class and one by one we outlined why we wanted to study Urdu. ‘My boyfriend is Pakistani’, ‘my husband is Pakistani’, ‘my boyfriend is Pakistani’… it got to me: ‘erm… I went to Pakistan and thought Urdu sounded quite nice, so I thought I’d give it a go’. At that point, Natalya was another face in the crowd, learning Urdu to speak to her husband’s family. But as the months went on, our fellow students dropped like flies (the one man in the class lasted just a couple of lessons before he was scared off by all the oestrogen) and by the end of the course, there were just four of us. It was then that I started to get to know Natalya a bit better and I was fascinated by her story; Natalya is Russian but converted to Islam last year.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been pestering her to let me tell her story, and I wasn’t sure if she was very keen. We both found it hard to meet, given that we’re working and fasting at the same time and, in addition, where do you meet when you’re not eating or drinking?! But when we met earlier today, Natalya was full of energy. I barely had to ask any questions, the story just started bubbling out of her. I think perhaps it’s one she hasn’t had a chance to tell many people. So now you, privileged readers, will be some of the first to hear her story. This is an edited version of the conversation we had just a few hours ago:

Me: Tell me again what made you convert, because I really liked that story. It wasn’t just meeting your husband, was it? It was more than that.

Natalya: I was never able to find a religion that could fit my needs, that could suit me. In Russia we have the Russian Orthodox Church, which is fine, but I found it very depressing. You go in the church and you see a very sad looking Jesus, with blood everywhere, and it’s all about suffering. I tried the Catholic Church and went to some Catholic classes, but it just didn’t go anywhere.

Me: What did they teach you?

Natalya: I don’t really remember, I just remember there was a very bad-tempered priest! There were some stories and some history… it just didn’t really resonate with me. I liked the music, but the whole issue of eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus, it just didn’t resonate with me. I did look into being pagan for a bit (laughs), but I couldn’t really engage with that either. But I never really looked into Islam because of all the bad press, so I never even considered it.

Me: And you didn’t have Muslim friends or anything?

Natalya: I had a friend of mine who married a Muslim, but most Russian Muslims aren’t really practising. There was a girl in my class who was Muslim, but again she was really Muslim by birth. So I didn’t really know anything about Islam apart from what I heard on the news. And then I met this handsome guy, just down the road from here! We met at an art gallery. A friend of mine is an artist and had his exhibition there, so invited me, and my husband is interested in art.

Me: A sexy artist?!

Natalya: (Rolls her eyes). Hmmm… yes! So I sidled up to him and asked what he thought of the artwork. It was the perfect excuse to talk! We started talking and got on really well, we were laughing. When it was time to go home he asked for my phone number and I gave it to him. We arranged to meet again but I was unwell so cancelled it. We rearranged and again I had a headache but I thought it would be bad to postpone again, so I went. We went to a restaurant and that’s when we had a proper chance to talk and I found out that he was a proper Muslim and… I was like… well…

Me: Were you a bit put off?

Natalya: Mmm, yeah. Because to be honest, I’d never got on so well with anybody in my life before and we got on so well together, it was unbelievable. But I thought (pulls a face), ‘Hmm… he’s Muslim… hmmm’. Even then, on the first date, I said: ‘there’s no way I’m wearing a headscarf’. He said, ‘nobody’s asking you to!’. And I remember that there were some Muslim girls sitting at a table, all wearing headscarves, and he said, ‘you see them, wearing headscarves? They do it out of their own choice’, and I said, ‘Yeah, right!’. That was our first date in February last year. We were on and off in touch, because I really liked him but I wasn’t really sure about him being a Muslim and I was finishing my Master’s as well so I had another excuse! Then in May, he suggested meeting again.

Me: Oh, bless! Persistent!

Natalya: Yes, that’s the other thing. If he weren’t that persistent it probably would have fallen apart! And when we met, we got on so well again, and it was so much fun and after a few days I thought, ‘well, that’s it! Muslim or not!’. I was so in love with him, and I wanted to make an effort.

Before I met Omar (my husband), I did a translation of a book by a Russian Muslim author. At the book launch, some of the Muslim community had brought some copies of the Quran in Russian. So coincidentally, I had a copy of the Quran in Russian already at home.

So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it a go’. I started reading. As you know, it’s not an easy read. And reading your blog, I really get what you’re talking about because after a while I thought, ‘all I’m reading about is how I’m going to burn in Hell!’. And I remember talking to Omar about it and telling him this. Omar said to me: ‘do you believe in God?’. I said, ‘yes’, and he said, ‘so it’s fine, you’re a believer!’. ‘Do you do good things?’. ‘Yes’. ‘So you’re not going to burn in Hell!’. But that’s all I could read. I put it back on the shelf and I said, ‘that’s it, I can’t do it anymore’. Later on he said that he was a bit disappointed when he heard that.

Then Ramadan came along last year and he told me there are special blessings for finishing the Quran in Ramadan. I thought to myself, ‘I will not be beaten by this book! I will finish it!’. I don’t know if you’ve come across this passage in the Quran, it says something about it being up to God who he decides to lead and who he won’t lead, so I thought maybe that’s why I didn’t finish it before.

Me: Yes, I was reading something similar today. It said something along the lines of asking the prophet why he wasted his time on the non-believers, because if God wanted to, he could make them believe, but he doesn’t. But I find that difficult to understand. Because if God supposedly is merciful, and he has it in his power to make you believe, why would he not make everyone believe and stop them all from burning in Hell? I find that difficult to get my head around.

Natalya: But I think your friend [in the blog comments] is right that to burn in Hell you have to be quite a heavy sinner.

Me: There go my Friday nights!

Natalya: (laughs). But what I like about Islam is that it’s positive, it encourages you to be good. It’s like a points system, you get cookie points for doing good things! In Christianity it seems to be all about sin, being born as a sinner, being a sinner because you’re a woman. But in Islam if you’re good, it’s rewarded.

So anyway, Ramadan started and Omar and I would meet every evening and go for a walk in the park, and he would be like… ‘argh, I need a bench!’. We’d go to a Turkish restaurant near my house so he could break his fast and he was really impressed because I had bought dates for him.

And I finished the Quran. He mentioned to me that there was a special night [many Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to the prophet on the 27th night of Ramadan], where there were special prayers. I thought about it, and I was really scared – petrified, to be honest – but I told him: ‘I want to go [to the mosque] too’.

Me: What were you scared of?

Natalya: At first I thought that Muslims were a bit… not unfriendly, but very serious. That I would be frowned upon for not doing something the right way. Again, in the Russian Orthodox Church, you should also cover your hair and if you don’t, you’ll be seriously frowned upon. I thought it would be similar. I was worried that somebody would figure out that I’m not a Muslim, and say ‘what are you doing here?’! I didn’t know what to expect, so I was really scared. But I still told him that I wanted to come. He said that he wasn’t sure if I was ready yet, he didn’t want to put me off Islam altogether, and that made me think there was something to be scared of. Anyway, I wore my long skirt and watched a youtube video on how to do the hijab and met him after work.

I had a little silver cross and I wore it as protection on the day before going to the Mosque and then took it off before entering.

Me: Like letting go of one religion and on to the next.

Natalya: Well I was never baptised, so I’ve never technically been Christian. We got the bus to Finsbury Park mosque and got there early. I took my copy of the Quran to read, but I hadn’t realised that you can use your phone in the mosque, you can read, eat, it’s very relaxed. People looked at me a bit curiously, probably because I’m so white with blue eyes.

Me: Did your husband tell you how to pray beforehand? I think that’s what would make me nervous.

Natalya: He tried to tell me what to say, but I couldn’t take it in at all. I said, ‘I’m never going down on my knees!’. He got down on the floor in my room to demonstrate and I just kept giggling! He said, ‘don’t worry, just follow everybody else’, and he’s right, it was quite easy. The other thing he said was, ‘just try to open your heart, be receptive’.

Me: Were you going thinking that conversion was a possibility, or were you just going out of curiosity?

Natalya: No, I didn’t think about conversion. I just wanted to share this experience with him, because it was important to him.

Me: Kind of like me and Fatima. Ha ha! This is where it starts. My parents will read that and go, ‘Oh my God!’.

Natalya: (Laughs) So that’s where it started. The other thing I remember was that there were children running around like crazy, even during the prayers. There were two Muslim women shouting at each other and swearing. The atmosphere was much more relaxed than I thought it would be. I was worried that everyone would be stony-faced, but it’s much more relaxed.

I started praying and in the breaks I read my Quran. I read a bit about having four wives, which made me laugh. But I was really trying to feel something. I always believed in God, in energy. But I really felt something.

Me: What did you feel?

Natalya: A fuzzy feeling. It’s difficult to describe. It was as if I had so much energy that it was flowing out of me. I felt like I was in my body but also around it. At the end of the prayer, during the last recitation, you have to lift your finger. I don’t know what the significance is. I thought I’d give it a go, and I just felt energy shooting out of it. It was amazing. We were there for three hours, but it went so quickly. He saw me safely home, all nice and halal!

The next morning, I woke up and I was sitting in my bed and I felt really light. I could feel my body, but I could feel outside of it as well. I sound like a psychic or something, like a crazy person! I’d had some problems in my life – I don’t want to go into it, but pretty bad stuff – and it kept hanging over me. But that first morning I felt free of my old baggage. It was so odd. I thought: ‘what’s going on?’. I felt like a new person, pretty much, as if whatever had been weighing on me was gone. I opened the Quran on a random page and the ayat I read said that when you come to God, he will lift your burden for you. That’s when I realised, this was it, this was what I had been looking for. A million people could tell you: ‘this is what’s right’, but unless you experience it, you can’t know.

Me: What did your husband say?

Natalya: At first he wasn’t certain if I was serious or not. But then when I saw him I said that I wanted to convert. To say that he was pleased is not really the right word, because it wasn’t so much for his benefit as for my own. But he said, if you want to convert, then we should get married.

Me: Why did he think that though? Because when you weren’t married he was happy for things to continue without you being married, right?

Natalya: Well we were already discussing marriage by that time, but we hadn’t set a date. It’s more that when you convert you get the chance to start again and your sins are washed away.

Me: Like starting afresh.

Natalya: Yeah, you see what I mean. But he’s really, really nice. He’s just so genuine. The more I get to know him, the more I love him.

Me: Gosh, I don’t know about Islam but you’re starting to make me believe in love!

Natalya: So I’d decided that I wanted to convert. He found this little Islamic book shop near Baker Street and they could do it. We arranged the date, 13th August last year. Ramadan was later last year so it wasn’t long after that. It wasn’t very long at all between deciding to convert and doing it. I needed two Muslim witnesses, so my husband came with a friend. I was nervous! The man talked to me about Islam and the five pillars of Islam, and being a good Muslim, and I was like (nods head vigorously), ‘Yeah, yeah!’. Then you have to repeat lots of things.

Me: In English or in Arabic?

Natalya: In both. There is a long bit in Arabic. And then they congratulated me and gave me a certificate! Because I want to go to Mecca, obviously, but to go there you have to have a visa and it’s only for Muslims, so I would have to prove that I’m a Muslim, so the certificate comes in handy. I took the Muslim name Layla.

Me: I didn’t realise that. Do you have to take a name?

Natalya: No. Some people say it’s obligatory. I think there may be a hadith about it, about taking nice names. It’s just nice and I really like the name.

Skipping ahead a bit, I naively thought that once I’d converted I’d never have any problems in my life again. That’s not true. You still have problems and upsets in your life, but faith does help you deal with them.

Anyway, going back, I’d converted. My family were saying, ‘you’re not going to convert for him, are you?’. I still think they don’t believe that I did it for myself.

Me: Are they understanding about it?

Natalya: They’re still convinced that I only did it to marry Omar. They think I did it to make him happy, not that I genuinely believe in it. Also I think they think I’ll get over it.

Me: Like it’s a phase? Like you’re a teenager.

Natalya: Yeah! That’s how things are, but they’ve accepted it. Reading your blog, you talk about your parents being understanding that you’re fasting. That’s not the case for me. They don’t even know that I fast and I’m not going to tell them. My Mum thinks I just do it with Omar, not the whole day. She doesn’t understand it. It does upset me a little bit.

Me: Are they religious?

Natalya: No. They’re not atheist – they believe that there’s something there but they wouldn’t necessarily call it God.

Me: I guess at least they accept it, they just don’t really try to understand. Is that right?

Natalya: No, they don’t.

Me: I think it’s really hard for parents. I think my parents would probably be the same. I think they’d be really surprised if I converted to Islam, I suppose because your parents have seen you grow up for your whole life. And for my parents if I were then to have this drastic departure from how they’d known me all that time, it would be a real shock.

Natalya: Mmm. But on the other hand, nothing has really changed. I haven’t changed. Well, I don’t eat pork, and in Russia they eat a lot of pork!

Me: Do you eat halal meat?

Natalya: I’m not that worried about halal. I have to eat gluten free, so if I did that and halal I would starve! I would be fasting for twelve months a year!

Me: But there is one big change, of course. Having gone from saying, ‘No hijab for me, I’ll never wear the hijab!’, you’re now wearing the hijab. So what happened?

Natalya: You need to try it. At first, I kind of did it to please my husband. That day when we went to the mosque, I put it on and you should have seen how he looked at me, with so much love and admiration! He was almost speechless!

Me: But that’s interesting, because you said that you didn’t convert for him, but do you think that the hijab is mostly because of his reaction?

Natalya: No, that’s just how it started. I started wearing it before I converted. Suddenly you’re part of a community. When you don’t wear the hijab, nobody cares about you. If you wear the hijab, most people still ignore you but Muslim people notice, they say hello to you.

Me: I can completely understand that. It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to ask you about it. For example, on Tuesday I went to a Latin American concert and obviously the majority of people were Latin American. It started at eight so I hadn’t broken my fast yet. It got to ten past nine and I knew I needed to break my fast, but when I went to leave, I realised you weren’t supposed to. I said to them, ‘I’m fasting, so I need to leave’. They just looked at me completely shocked, this white girl with the blue eyes, like you say, and you can see them thinking, ‘what do I do?’. They were nice about it, but they were just obviously shocked, and I could tell that they wanted to ask, ‘are you really Muslim?’ and I think particularly what they wanted to say was: ‘but you’re not wearing a hijab’. I don’t feel like you have to wear the hijab to be a Muslim. So I was a bit defiant, I didn’t even tell them about the blog, I just said, ‘yep, I’m fasting!’. But I can understand that the hijab would give you that sense of community, a sense of belonging.

Natalya: For me, it also makes me feel safe. I was always aware of people looking at me. I don’t like it when men stare at you. Now: solved! No-one ever looks at you! (Laughs).

Me: No more cat-calling and whistling in the street!

Natalya: People do treat you with more respect. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.

Me: I think that’s one of the things that I don’t like as much though. Not that I mind when people do want to wear it. But I suppose when I’ve spoken to some of my Muslim friends and ask them why they cover up, they say that otherwise men say things to them. I feel that there’s a slight attitude of victim-blaming in that. I’m not going to cover myself up because men are inappropriate in the street. They’re the ones that should learn to behave in a decent way towards women.

Natalya: Because you’re very strong! I’m not like that. I don’t wear the hijab at work. I wear it to and from the office, but not at work.

Me: Do they know that you’ve converted?

Natalya: They’re starting to find out. They thought it was just for my husband, but now a few know that I’m fasting as well. They say, ‘I wouldn’t do that for my other half!’. The office was cold in winter and I put my scarf on and I got some not very nice comments about it, like, ‘why are you wearing it?’.

Me: Do you think they were just curious?

Natalya: No, it really wasn’t very nice. They said it was ‘excessive’. I work in the construction industry and I’m a woman, I’m not British, all of these things are not great and then if I add a headscarf, it would be too much. My husband says I should be strong and I agree, but I’m not that strong. I told a girl about fasting and I was so shy, but she was Sikh and she was so nice and supportive.

Me: I was the reverse. I wanted to tell everyone. I wanted to feel part of something. I would stop random people like the person who packed my bag in Sainsbury’s and wish him ‘Ramadan Mubarak’! Luckily he was actually Muslim, but it was a good guess! He was Asian, but he could have been Hindu, he could have been atheist. I just wanted to know that I wasn’t alone doing it, which was hard because Fatima was away.

Natalya: Yes, so like you say, when I wear the hijab, more Muslims engage with you. Just little conversations.

Me: But I can understand why it would also make you feel self-conscious, because it gives you that instant marker of identity, either for good or bad. It reveals you as part of that community, but also for those people that don’t understand, it’s like, ‘oh, she’s wearing a hijab’.

Natalya: Yes. Like after what happened in Tunisia… not everyone in the office knows that I’m Muslim and I could hear the receptionist complaining about Muslims being terrorists and I thought, ‘If they knew that I was Muslim, they probably wouldn’t say that’. It might be whispers, which would be even worse.

Now, if I went for an interview, I would go in my headscarf, so that they would be prepared, because it’s how I feel more comfortable.

Me: And how have you found fasting?

Natalya: It’s nowhere near as bad as I thought. I think men do find it harder, not just because it’s longer, but because women are more accustomed to bodily stresses and pain.

Me: Do you think? It’s been making me quite ill!

Natalya: You should have seen my husband fasting. On the second day he looked like a ghost! So I was prepared for something similar but it didn’t happen. Women have periods and go through childbirth – I guess it makes you feel like Ramadan is nothing in comparison!

Also, your blog really helped. I didn’t fast for the first few days for ‘ladies’ reasons’ and I was debating whether to fast. I have to be on site a lot and travel, but luckily this month I’ve only had three site visits. I thought I would just try one day a week. I get a lot of migraines. The doctors say to drink a lot of water and eat regularly, but I haven’t had any headaches. And then I saw your blog, and I saw that it was doable. So I thought I would try it. On the third day you said it was easy-peasy!

Me: (I laugh). I don’t know how that happened! I think I just slept for a lot of it!

Natalya: One of the things I’ve found really hard is the lack of sleep. Sometimes I would go home and sleep and then get up again. But yes, so to finish my story, my husband and I then got married in September last year. People still think that I converted for him, but I didn’t: we were already planning to get married and as a Muslim man, he can marry a non-Muslim. If it were the other way round, it would be different. I converted because I wanted to.

So that’s Natalya’s story! I know it’s a bit of a long post, but I really enjoyed hearing it, so I thought that you would too.

By the time you are reading this, it will already be Eid! Eid Mubarak to all of my readers! I hope the Muslims among you have a lovely day with your friends and family, and that your time fasting makes you appreciate all of the things that you have today (not just the food, but the relationships too) just that little bit more.

I will post one last blog after Eid as a conclusion to the experience, so watch out for that. Until then, please remember to wish your friends and colleagues a very happy Eid!

*the names in this story have been changed in respect for the interviewee’s privacy.

Islam and the Community

A really nice thing happened to me this week and it captured the essence of Ramadan for me. The avid readers among you will remember ‘Smoky’, the neighbour opposite who I always see having his last cigarette before fasting starts again at 3am. He was my only companion for sehri for the weeks in which Fatima was away. I had been waving my computer screen at him frantically, to no avail, and then left a note in the window saying ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ with my twitter handle (@fastingatheist). Disappointingly, I didn’t seem to get much of a response. I thought that he might check out the blog and leave a comment, but nothing seemed to happen.

Then, on Wednesday evening as I was preparing my iftar meal, the doorbell rang. My flatmate Sabrina went to answer it 20150708_212119[1]and it was Smoky! Not only that, but he had a delivery for Fatima and I – an iftar meal each. It was such a lovely, generous gesture and I was really moved. As I stated in my last blog, I’ve been finding fasting quite difficult recently, and it definitely helped me to push through the more difficult days later in the week (on Friday, for example, I was on my feet for eight hours straight at a garden party in the sun, surrounded by alcohol and delicious food. It was a Ramadan nightmare!). It served as a fantastic reminder of why I’m doing this – Muslims may fast for various reasons, but for me this fasting project is about bringing me closer to the Muslim community around me, so it obviously seems to 20150713_000334[1]be working. I’ve never had any contact with this neighbour before (though I do know many of my other neighbours as I’ve always believed in the importance of getting to know the people who live so close to you). He escaped to break his fast before I could even ask his name, but both Fatima and I were very touched by his gesture.

This got me thinking about the role that religion plays in fostering community ties. In previous era in the UK, the church would have been a central convening point for the community, bringing people together and encouraging them to support one another. In some places in the UK, this is still the case. Similarly, for Muslims, I think there tends to be a sense of community around the mosque, and if not around the physical establishment of the mosque, there is something about the tenets of Islam that creates a sense of community: there are parts of the Qur’an that to me, read almost like socialism, advocating the sharing of possessions and wealth. This necessitates a community that is close-knit: to share things, you need to know who you are sharing with.

It is a community spirit that, as we move away from religion, we need to endeavour to capture via other means. There are those that say that the solution is for us to turn back to religion to recapture some of this sense of community – if I am not mistaken, I have seen Baroness Warsi herself argue this point previously. As an atheist, I’m afraid that I do disagree with this line of argument, though of course, I have no problem with anyone who does wish to turn to religion as a solution. I would simply argue that it’s not the only way to address the problem. In my parents’ village, they have a town hall and there is a very strong sense of community. The village comes together to organise lots of events throughout the year, including a May fayre and ‘flicks in the stix’, a monthly cinema viewing (my parents, London immigrants to the village, have achieved village-wide notoriety for nominating inappropriate films. The last one was some Scandidrama that involved a naked man running across the snow, body parts flapping in the wind, which had some of the pensioners a bit goggly-eyed).

Even in London, it is possible to recapture this sense of community without religion. This can be seen in the popularity of street parties, which bring together small communities to ensure that people actually know their neighbours. It was also evident in the boot camp that I went on recently, which was organised by a fantastic community leader, Dave. There was something almost religious about the camp – it brought together various communities from East and South London, providing a social activity for them to focus around (the exercise classes) and teaching people about a better way of living (the health talks). But in order for these community events and practices to occur, there needs to be investment in them. So there are ways of recapturing this sense of community, though of course religion, and particularly in this case, Islam, provides not just an ethical framework within which society should operate, but also a tangible network and community within which those good deeds can be practised. It should be remembered that this is what the real spirit of Ramadan is about.

This is harder and harder to achieve in a capitalist society, particularly with the casualisation of labour and the rental market being as it is in London. I’m not the first to say this: actually Marx seems to have beaten me to it (I think I just heard a collective cheer go up from the SOAS direction). Marx argued that in a capitalist system, people are likely to feel a sense of alienation because they have lost a sense of control over the direction of their own lives (because they do not own the means of production – these are owned by the bourgeoisie, the upper classes). Clearly things are not quite this simple in a day when there are many self-made entrepreneurs. And yet: we have moved from a manufacturing country to one that now predominantly focuses on services, which has eroded a sense of community that existed. Think, for example, of the working mens’ clubs that flourished in the North (and elsewhere) around mining communities and other manufacturing industries. Labour is being slowly casualised, forcing many people from job to job without being able to form communities around the work that they do. The laws around unionisation are being tightened, diminishing the unions’ power as a convening agent. And people move from apartment to apartment every six months at the whim of their landlord (my brother, for example, has moved five times in the past eighteen months). None of these factors is conducive to building a society with a sense of community, whether that be around a communal workplace or living space.

The success of a society is not just about its wealth or even its technological advances, it is also about the way the people within it treat each other, and we need to make sure that this is captured to keep flourishing and developing as a society. It is about how we treat society’s most vulnerable; the poor, the disabled and the elderly, for example. Islam couldn’t be clearer about this: numerous passages of the Qur’an emphasise the importance of treating these groups well and charitable giving (zakat) is one of the five pillars of Islam. One of my favourite passages of the Qur’an talks about the treatment of the elderly:

Your Lord has commanded that you should worship none but Him, and that you should be kind to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, say no word that shows impatience with them, and do not be harsh with them, but speak to them respectfully and lower your wing in humility towards them in kindness and say ‘Lord, have mercy on them, just as they cared for me when I was little’ (The Night Journey, s23-24).

This should keep my parents happy – they are constantly threatening to develop incontinence in their old age in return for all the nappies they had to change when my brother and I were babies.

But in all seriousness, I believe very strongly that the measure of a society’s development should be in the way its citizens treat one another, not in its economic success. Religion is one way of capturing this, but it’s not the only way. Islam is to be commended for the emphasis that it places on community, on sharing, and on protecting society’s most vulnerable, and I believe that we owe those Muslims within our own communities that espouse these values a great deal of respect. Yet if we chose, ourselves, not to follow an established religion, we nevertheless need to ensure that we have other physical and non-physical means of creating that sense of community. That requires investment both from the state and from us as individuals. I’d like to leave you with a video link that’s going viral about London. It might be a bit cheesy, but it does show that essentially, there are a lot of Londoners out there who understand the importance of living in a caring, thoughtful society.

My Jihad

They say that when you run a marathon, there comes a point when you mentally and physically feel like you just can’t keep going: they call this point ‘the wall’. One marathon site describes it as

‘that period in a marathon when things transition from being pretty hard to being really, really hard. It is the point where your body and mind are simultaneously tested. It’s the perfect intersection of fatigue and diminished mental faculties.’

If I’ve been quiet over the last few days, I apologise, but it’s because I hit my Ramadan wall, the point where my body and mind were simultaneously tested. I think there is often a feeling that men have a harder time during Ramadan because they have to do the full 30 days, whereas women generally take a week out, but let me tell you: returning to fasting is no picnic (pun intended). Once you’ve lost your rhythm and the mind-set that you had perfected, it’s hard work to get it back. Particularly for me, as a fasting atheist, I’ve found it difficult. This was never part of the original plan. My resolve hasn’t been the same as it was in that first week, when I felt determined to get through it and the end was in sight. In some senses, this is not helped by people (very kindly) reminding me that I don’t have to do it. They’re right, I don’t have to – which only makes me question why I am. In some senses, it’s probably like when one’s faith is tested.

It was made all the more difficult at the weekend. I started the weekend by opening the work bar. This involved sending a poster to colleagues to remind them that the bar was open. My colleague Jonathan was highly amused to find me scrolling through images of cocktails with beach backdrops. I then had to serve the cocktails for a short period, which was probably even worse.

That evening, I travelled home with my brother to see our parents for the weekend. I thought that it would be a relaxing weekend at home. It was – but temptation also lurked around every corner. Weekends at home normally involve home cooking, glasses of wine while we (mostly my brother) set the world to rights and lounging around reading the newspaper. Except that this time round, I couldn’t eat or drink until maghrib at 9:22pm, had to abstain from alcohol and lounging around meant that there was nothing to distract me from the hunger and thirst. My brother took delight in lunching on my favourite foods: parma ham, sun-dried tomatoes and stuffed peppers. Cretin. Reading this back, I don’t want to sound ungrateful: I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend time with my family in this way, and it was a really nice weekend, as it always is. They even waited until maghrib to have dinner with me (cue moans of ‘I’m huuuungry!’. No, I do not have little brothers and sisters, this is my Dad and brother that I am talking about, having eaten lunch about five hours before!).

Either way, I made it through the weekend. But yesterday evening, due to disrupted Sunday train services, I ended up being on a train for maghrib and had to break my fast then and there with some dates and a bottle of water. Technically, if you’re travelling, you don’t have to fast, but given that the journey is only an hour, I didn’t think it warranted a missed day. Still, I can see why the rule exists: I ended up eating at gone ten in the evening. This meant that when I woke up for the sehri at 2:30am, I wasn’t hungry at all and ended up having a banana and some yoghurt. A mince-meat feast it was not. As a consequence, I woke up this morning to a Shreddies disaster: hunger had struck. I comforted myself with the thought that it would probably go away again, as it normally does. It didn’t. All day I was incredibly hungry and thirsty, my jaw started to hurt from clenching it against the hunger and then that gave me a pounding headache. I felt like I was going to be sick, and my body was protesting strongly in a variety of forms.

In addition, I was aware that tonight I had a bhangra cardio class. If you are one of my more loyal readers, you will know that in my Day Seven blog, I did actually only commit to see Ramadan through to the end on the proviso that I may have to break fast for my pre-booked Monday bhangra classes. I had hoped that it wouldn’t come to it… but I am disappointed to admit that it did. At 5:15pm, I ate a sandwich. I felt disappointed, but at the same time, now that I have done the class, I know that I couldn’t have done it while fasting, it was just too much. In fact, hours later, I am still not feeling great. I just don’t think Ramadan and exercise are compatible. Before I started fasting, I read a blog on exercising during Ramadan in which the woman (a Muslim gym instructor) advised waiting until two hours after iftar to let your food go down and then exercising. I would like to know where she was writing from, because in the UK that would involve exercising at 11:30pm! Somehow I think that’s slightly unrealistic.

I think what keeps people going in these more difficult times is a sense of community. There have been times when I have longed for Pakistan, despite the heat, because everyone would be fasting alongside me, and office hours would account for the difficulties of fasting. Previously, my blog kept me going, and the online community that supported me along the way – but my readers have gone quiet recently (yes you, fickle lot!). Please do keep sending your messages through, and sharing the blog. It keeps me going: for Muslims Ramadan is about their connection to God, but for me it is about sharing this story in order increase understanding of Islam, which I can only do with your help.

I have a renewed sense of enthusiasm now. For starters, Fatima is back! I am excited about fasting together, which was, after all, the original point of the exercise. We are sat in front of Islam Channel, on which an enthusiastic presenter is reminding me that we are now entering the last ten days of Ramadan. These are the most holy because it was on one of these days that the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Mohammed (I think this is where I say ‘peace be upon him’!). (No-one knows exactly which day, but it is supposed to be on one of the ‘odd nights’, and many Muslims up their levels of devotion on these nights, for example by praying more). It’s the last push. This is my jihad – in the true sense of the word. Jihad, contrary to how some use the word, is not about violence. It is the internal struggle with one’s own desires. It’s about drawing on your last reserves of willpower, and pushing through that wall.

If you take one thing from this blog today, please let it be that it is not only me who is struggling at this point. This is when many Muslims start their jihad – it’s hot, the days are long and we’re two-thirds through. Please take the time to demonstrate your support, even in a small way. Wish your colleague, friend, or the person packing your shopping bags a ‘Ramadan Mubarak’. Tell them that they’re doing well. However you show your support, even the small gestures will be appreciated, trust me.

In my case, I can only do it with your help – so please share, share, share!


Islam and Atheism

20150625_124759[1]I’m back! After seven days off, I am ready to rumble! I have to say that I had some mixed feelings about my time off. On the first day, it felt strange to be able to eat and drink whenever I wanted to. As soon as I was hungry or thirsty I just satisfied that urge. But I fell back into my old habits quite quickly and soon it didn’t seem strange at all. I also admit that I delighted in doing a few very non-Muslim things. This, for example, is me eating a gelatinous sweet shaped like a pig. You don’t get more haram than that!

But what I really didn’t expect was that there was something about fasting that I missed. There were a couple of times in particular that I found myself thinking: ‘If I were fasting now, I wouldn’t let this bother me so much’. The first was when I was battling the tourists in Piccadilly Circus to get the tube, and a few inventive uses for their selfie sticks came to mind. The second was when a difficult work contact gave me a fifteen minute dressing down a couple of days ago and I let it affect me. It occurred to me that if I had been fasting, either I wouldn’t have had the energy to let the comments get to me, or I would have had the feeling that I had other priorities to deal with. I can’t pinpoint whether it is the fasting alone or also the blog, but last week I had a sense of purpose to my actions that helped me to push through difficult moments like these.

Unfortunately that resolve proved difficult to replicate today. BBC Weather seemed to think that the temperature reached a high of 26 degrees today. I’m no meteorologist, but that doesn’t seem right to me! Walking outside makes you feel like your body and the hot air are just one mass of heat, seeping into each other. Inside, the windows of my room have been glued shut (thanks, your Majesty!) and it feels like I’m breathing in air that’s as old as the building. Turns out fasting is much harder when it’s hot. Who’d have known?! I think my readers in Pakistan are probably rolling their eyes in disgust, if not actively throwing things at their computer screens by now. But please do try to remember that us poor, frail Londoners are not make for this kind of heat! We are made for snow, rain and the occasional ‘sunny spell’.

Today I want to touch on a theme that has been brought up by some of the comments from readers. Predominantly, the feedback that I have received has been overwhelmingly positive. In particular, I get a lot of comments from Muslim readers expressing their (often surprised) gratitude that a non-Muslim is making an attempt to understand their faith and culture. This, for me, only confirms my original suspicion that we, as non-Muslims, are not doing enough to actively reach out and understand a religion that affects so many British (and indeed, global) citizens in one way or another. I have been heartened, however, by like-minded individuals and projects that have sprung up in my twitter feed (@fastingatheist); attempts to unite Muslims and non-Muslims in varying different ways.

Surprisingly (at least to me), the only negative reactions that I have received have been from atheists. I don’t want to exaggerate: there have only been a few. But they surprise me nonetheless. One wrote that my blog was ‘b&ll*cks’! Fair enough, each to their own! I replied with a measured: ‘Not very productive! Care to elaborate? I’m happy to engage’, to which the response was: ‘I suspect you are not an atheist at all as no right minded atheist would do that. Stop using the atheist tag’. I am not sure whether to be bemused or annoyed! Where is this coming from?! Wherefore the rage?! I am an atheist because I do not believe in God, and I don’t believe in dogmatically following organised religion. I wonder what this reader considers a ‘right-minded’ atheist to be? Is it because I am taking the time to find out about another religion and engage with its followers? I’ve already highlighted in the introductory post why I think that is important. It is only through making active attempts to respect and understand other cultures and beliefs that we can live in a harmonious and peaceful society. I’m starting to sound like a far-out hippy, but isn’t that what we all want, really?!

Another reader posts to facebook that ‘a greater kindness would be [for Emma] to talk her friend out of the superstitious nonsense that oppresses her (whilst understanding that her friend is, presumably, willingly complicit in her own oppression)’. Erm, sorry Fatima! Ironically, my first reaction to this is ‘Oh, God!’. I can only hope that this reader has seen from the careful comments from my friends and other readers as the blog has developed that their interpretation of Islam is far more nuanced than he is giving them credit for. Far from being ‘oppressed’ by ‘superstitious nonsense’, many of them are empowered by their religion and engage in debate about it critically and thoughtfully. This reader also blames religion for causing conflict. I advise him, and any other readers who have the same doubts, to read Alison Stewart on ‘horizontal inequalities’. In fact, my response looked a bit like this, for those that wouldn’t have been able to see it:

What Stewart argues is that conflict occurs when 1. there are severe inequalities between two groups and 2. those groups have a strong sense of group identity. Take away either and you’re likely to reduce the potential for conflict. You could do something to reduce levels of inequality… Or you could do something to remove the strong sense of identity and encourage understanding between the two groups – in fact, encouraging an awareness of our multiple identities as individuals (the first blog post talks about this). Yes, this needs to involve Muslims understanding atheism and non-Muslim cultures. But it also needs to involve non-Muslims understanding Muslims, which is far more lacking and is where the blog comes in. Given that there is actually no evidence either way as to the existence of God, and it is a debate that will never be settled, efforts need to be made on both sides.

And yet… In fairness to some of my atheist readers, I must admit that I have been struggling with the Qur’an recently. I was grateful for the break because the readings were starting to become hard work. I would flip to what sounded like an exciting sura from the title (‘The Ants’, ‘The Spider’, ‘The Pen’) but they all turn out to be about how non-believers will be purchasing a non-refundable ticket to the fiery depths of hell. (Marketing execs could take a few lessons from the Qur’an.) Jews and Christians get off lightly (they may have some of the details wrong, but they are still believers); all of Allah’s wrath seems to be reserved for the non-believers.

I remember having this conversation with Zainab fairly early on in our friendship, sitting in our squalid student kitchen. I asked her if, even if I lived the most moral life, dedicated myself to doing good, gave money to charity, treated my friends and family well, but didn’t believe in God, I would be let in to heaven. She thought about it, squirmed and said that the Qur’an, at least, said ‘no’. I still find this difficult to reconcile with a God that is supposedly merciful.

Thankfully, I don’t think that this is the approach that any of my Muslim friends take. But it clearly is an approach that is becoming popular with a few minority Muslims: that there is no sin greater than not believing. I will make an attempt to cover this in a future bog post on extremism, though I am wary of making any foolish comments, given that it’s such a sensitive subject.

If there is one message that I would like my readers of all faiths and beliefs (and I include atheism within that scope) to take away, it is one of respect and understanding. None of us has the answers to the big questions: where do we come from, how did the universe come into being, and why are we here? The important thing is to recognise firstly, that we should not stop asking those questions, and secondly that, in our limited understanding as human beings, we will all reach different answers.

I’ll be back in a few days’ time to offer my two-pennies’ worth on another subject. I hope you enjoyed today’s blog!


Day Seven

So – that’s it, seven days completed! I have fasted, ‘prayed’ and blogged for seven days and seven nights. Today was quite tough, physically. But in the evening I went to see my friend Eleonore and her beautiful new-born baby Iris. I don’t know what could be a better testament to the miracle of life than a tiny little person. She has that new-born baby smell. Eleonore told me that she reads my blog at 3am in the morning when she gets up to breast feed and it keeps her entertained. The trials of a new mother make fasting pale in comparison. I can’t believe that I have been complaining about getting up for sehri – she is up every few hours to breast feed. The things our mothers do for us! I plan on reminding Iris of this when she is a moody teenager.

Talking of sehri, it’s a lonely affair at my house without Fatima. But I have noticed that we have two Muslim neighbours in the flats opposite. One of them paces up and down like some kind of caged lion. It’s a bit disconcerting. The other stands on his balcony and stares in the direction of our flat, smoking (how is smoking not haram? It’s an intoxicant just like alcohol. But let’s leave that for another day). Today, at 2:30am, I was ready for him. I wrote ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ on my computer screen and started waving it at him like a crazy person. Given that I eat my sehri in the dark, I think it was a bit of a shock. He just gave me a hesitant wave. Tonight I am more prepared. I have written ‘Ramadan Mubarak, from @fastingatheist’ on some paper and I’m going to put it up in the window. Smoking neighbour, if you are reading this, welcome to my blog! You will know it’s you because last night a crazy lady started waving her computer at you in the dark when you were trying to smoke your final haram cigarette in peace.

On this, the seventh day, I wanted to leave you with the words of some of my friends, so that you can hear from them directly why they fast. As the story started with Fatima, let’s hear from her first:

‘Aside from the fact that Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam (there are five pillars; Shahadah – saying I believe there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed peace be upon him is the prophet of Allah, praying five times a day, fasting giving zakat and going for Hajj if you can afford it);

Or that Ramadan is such a blessed and holy month;

To me Ramadan is a month where it’s my ‘me’ time with Allah. I feel like it re-centres me and helps me to connect with Allah. It sort of grounds me a bit.

I also feel lucky that Allah gives me life and health to experience this month. It’s a huge privilege. It’s my chance to show Allah how dedicated I am to him and that I truly believe in Islam.

And I do fundamentally believe in the lessons of Ramadan and always pray that Allah gives me the strength to take on my learnings in this month to my normal day-to-day life.

I also pray more for my dead family members. I should be doing this anyway but in Ramadan I seem to do it more. I think about them a lot’.

Now to Zainab, my glamorous fashionista friend who has introduced me to all things Pakistani, currently living in L.A.:

‘Being born a Muslim does not mean that from day one you will truly understand your religion and follow every hukm (command) of Allah as He has said in the Quran or as observed in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). That is particularly true for me as my religion Islam has been (continues to be) a journey for me.

 Ramadan has been an important part of this spiritual journey for me as it has grown in significance for me through the years. From the forced fasts when I was younger to getting excited now as Ramadan approached, I have learnt many things about Ramadan through knowledge and experience. First of all, Ramadan to me represents two of the most important pillars of Islamic values which are patience and tolerance.

It is a command from Allah for a Muslim and it must be followed in order for us to spiritually cleanse ourselves. This spiritual detox (as I would like to call it) comes once a year but for me it’s like a 30 day training towards becoming a better Muslim. You devote most of your time to Allah physically, mentally and spiritually. By devoting yourself I don’t just mean not eating or drinking but I mean learning more about your religion, spending more time with fellow Muslims in the remembrance of Allah, being generous towards others and basically just reminding yourself each and every day that you are Allah’s servant, created for Allah, to serve Allah and his creation. For me Ramadan is the real human experience, where you connect with yourself, others and that power that is above and beyond you.’

Next: Myra, avid peer reviewer of the blog, empowered Pakistani feminist and Farhan Akhtar aficionada (currently based in Islamabad):

‘There are a couple of reasons why I fast. One is purely religious; because it is a compulsory act prescribed on me by Allah, hence there is no question of not doing it. Second is more because of the benefits it brings; it makes me realise how people who do not have the luxury of eating and drinking good food every day feel. This feeling makes me realise the blessings of Allah that I have been given and makes me appreciate them more.

Also, Muslims believe that Satan is chained during the month of Ramzaan so basically any bad deed you do is purely a conscious decision and you can’t make an excuse that you were misled by Shaitan (Satan). This compels me to try to control all my bad qualities during Ramzaan, such as anger and lack of patience. Ramzaan also gives a sense of community and solidarity because you feel like you’re all in it together, with those people around you who are fasting.’

And lastly, before I am accused of gender bias, let’s hear it from Hassan, government official, incessant tease and eloquent debater, here in London:

‘Of course, I do it for the seventy virgins… seventy-two to be precise! But honestly I have never really thought about why I fast. I grew up in a moderate Muslim family where you are taught to follow at least the basic tenets of Islam and fasting is one of them. It’s just something you have to do as a Muslim, just like praying or believing in God and the afterlife.

But for me personally, Ramadan (and fasting in particular) have a spiritual dimension. During this month I pray more than normal, swear less, I’m more patient and tolerant, read more about Islam and am more inclined towards charity and sadqa. So even if you take religion out [of the equation], I think fasting is a good way to connect to one’s spiritual side, just like meditation.’

So there you go: you don’t need to hear about Ramadan from me, you can hear it from my friends. I wanted to give voice to them in the blog because they are the ones that inspired it. They’ve been a huge support to me over the past week and this blog belongs as much to them as it does to me, genuinely.

But in case you haven’t tired of me yet, I have some good news. Some of you have asked if I will be continuing and my answer is… yes! How can I possibly deny my loyal followers their fix? But in compensation, you need to come up with a name for yourselves. Justin Bieber has the ‘Beliebers’, Ed Miliband has the ‘Milifans’. I nominate Myra as your leader – she has asked me what feels like twenty times if I will be continuing to post!

I’ll be taking a week off (all women fast for just three weeks of Ramadan – men, if you’re not following then go and give Google another hit for their daily tally) and will be starting again next Thursday. I do have some bhangara cardio classes booked, and I will try my hardest to keep fast those days but if I have to have a sneaky gulp of water I hope that you won’t hold it against me. But there is too much left to talk about to stop now. To leave you on a cliffhanger, a Russian friend from my Urdu class will be telling me why she converted to Islam and Fatima and I will be celebrating iftar at a random Muslim’s house courtesy of dine@mine (check it out). So there are lots of reasons to tune back in in a week’s time. I should note, however, that I will be blogging less frequently – perhaps three times a week – as the combination of fasting, ‘praying’ and blogging every night is a rapid means to mental perturbation (i.e. I’ll go crazy).

Before I sign out for the week, I wanted to thank all of the readers who have posted comments. Thank-you – you have kept20150624_091343[1] me continuously motivated. I especially wanted to thank the reader who posted her admiration for me attempting Ramadan in the scorching heat (or something along those lines). I really enjoyed that one. I don’t think that reader can ever have been to London in June, so for her reference I am enclosing a picture of London today as I walked into work. It was a scorching 23 degrees. On a more serious note, please take a moment to think of the families of the hundreds of people who have died in Pakistan, where the heat literally is unbearable at the moment.

I look forward to hearing from you all in a week and in the meantime, Ramadan Mubarak! To my Muslim readers: keep staying strong!


Day Six

Today was a bit of a challenge. I was fine in that I was my normal pretty upbeat self, but physically my body seemed to be protesting slightly. Years of living and travelling abroad (particularly Ghana, Colombia and Pakistan) have really worked their magic on my body, and it served as a slight reminder to take it easy. But it was manageable; nothing I couldn’t handle.

And anyway, Ramadan is not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be a reminder of how difficult other people’s lives can be, of how it feels to be poor. This is one of the things that attracted me to finding out more about Ramadan, because the concept of fasting for a month to empathise with the poor seems like an honourable one. Yet at the same time, it made me feel conflicted because it is such a poor imitation of poverty. Anyone who has first-hand knowledge of poverty, either from their own experience or from living alongside it, knows that it is the grinding nature of not only having nothing, but of never hoping to have anything, that causes such desperation.

I have never been poor. But when I lived in Paraguay, I did see poverty first-hand through friends and loved ones. One family in particular that I knew just could never seem to escape their situation. The elder children had never had an education because they had to go and work, but after a dispute with another employee, they were sacked without due cause. They sued the employer for unfair dismissal, but it took years for the case to reach the court. When it did finally reach the court, the family won. Yet still the ordeal was not over because the company said that they would appeal (meaning another few years without payment), or the family could take the settlement that they offered – half the amount. The family settled. Yet even that money was swallowed up in lawyers’ fees, mortgage payments that were overdue by years, children’s clothes and hospital bills. It was literally gone overnight. And still the children were uneducated and unemployed. The elder son, when I knew him, was working for a politician in a job that lasted for nearly a year and for which he was never paid. I found out recently that he is again in a similar situation – the job he was so excited to get months ago has still not paid a penny. My friend would tell me stories of his childhood when he would go hungry for days on end and was teased by the other children at school for being poor.

How can Ramadan hope to compare with this? It’s almost like the campaign to live on £1 a day for a week, or the ‘sleepovers’ in the street for homeless people or even Iain Duncan Smith’s claims that he could live on benefits for a week (just thinking about that last one is getting me riled up!). There is something almost offensive about it. Of course one can live off benefits for a week if one has already paid one’s mortgage, electricity bills, water bills, gas bills, transportation and God knows what else. Even if that were not the case, one can rest safe in the knowledge that it’s only for a week. You just have to wait out the seven days and it will all be over.

And this is exactly what I do for Ramadan: I put up with the hunger and the thirst in the knowledge that it will all be over at 9:24pm. That’s what makes it bearable. But just this fact means that you can never really know what poverty is like until you are poor. I remember lying in bed in Paraguay and looking at the cracked, unpainted walls and the lines from ‘Common People’ springing into my head[1]:

But still you’ll never get it right

‘cos when you’re lying in bed at night

Watching roaches climb the walls

If you call your Dad he can stop it all, yeah.

And yet. Today a colleague expressed this exact opinion and I couldn’t help but come to Islam’s defence. My colleague grew up in a family where she felt hunger – where they didn’t always have everything they needed. She argued that one doesn’t have to fast to empathise with the poor. I agree – I think nothing could rival my experience in Paraguay in terms of opening my eyes to the grinding everyday nature of poverty. But I have had this experience, and she has had hers. There are some people out there who haven’t had any experience of poverty and really don’t understand in the slightest what it looks like, or how it might feel. Even in countries where they live right alongside poor people, they build higher walls, buy cars with tinted windows and complain about how dangerous the city has become.

If fasting can serve as a reminder to those people, and to all of us, to remember the poor, then I think it is worthwhile. It may not give them the whole experience, but at least it touches the surface. And even if the giving of zakat merely clears their conscience for another year, still I believe this is better than nothing. And actually, even this is not the spirit of Islam – yes, your deeds in Ramadan are rewarded multiple times over in the next life, but you are supposed to give to charity throughout the year, not just this month. Likewise, the idea is not to eat nothing all day and then gorge yourself on delicacies at night. That may now be common practice in some places, but it is not in the true spirit of Ramadan. There are countless sura in which the Qur’an is critical of wealth and of amassing excessive wealth; in sura 100 a man who is ‘truly excessive in his love of wealth’ is ‘ungrateful to his Lord’ and sura 104 is critical of he ‘who amasses riches, counting them over, thinking they will make him live forever’. These are just a couple of examples – there must be plenty more.

Although I knew what poverty was when I started fasting, I had never really felt it before, and I think that that is important. I had probably never been thirsty for more than a few hours before without then being able to quench my thirst. When I go back to eating normally in a couple of days’ time, I think what will feel most strange is starting to get hungry and immediately being able to satisfy that hunger – a luxury that many don’t have. Above all, I think I am more grateful for all of the things that I have in life – not just food and water, but friends and family to support me in more difficult times. There are many in life that don’t have these luxuries, and so this, I suppose, is what it means to be blessed.

[1] If you don’t know the song, look it up (it’s by Pulp). It’s part of the BritPop movement in the 90s and, despite its upbeat rhythm, its lyrics are incredibly powerful. It’s about a girl who wants to fake it as one of the ‘common people’.

Day Five

Asalamaleikum loyal followers, and a warm welcome to all the new readers garnered via the powerful medium of a Baroness Warsi re-tweet! I hope you are all enjoying the blog.

Day 5 got off to a bit of a rocky start thanks to a pretty bad night’s sleep. I came back from the Ramadan tent at about 11pm and then had to write the blog (the perils of both doing Ramadan and keeping you rowdy lot satisfied!). By the time I had done that, I realised that I hadn’t done my isha’a reading, so eventually it was about 1:15am before I got to bed and then, of course, I had to get up an hour later for the fajr. I went back to bed and then accidentally woke up late – I have so many alarms set at the moment that I can’t seem to keep track of them. In essence, I probably only had a few hours’ sleep and felt pretty groggy. I was also pretty alarmed to find at 8:30am that I was already hungry (probably because I was so tired at the fajr that I only ate a banana). But the day certainly got easier as it went on. One thing I would say is that I have got beyond the panicked 2am mince-meat shovelling stage and feel a greater sense of calm: even if all I eat is a banana, my body will cope. Apparently, it is capable of much more than I expected.

Today both my patience and my kindness were tested when a colleague asked me a series of inane questions. This in itself is not unusual – my boss’s motto, much drawn upon, is ‘deep breath’ – and it’s part of my everyday working life that I have to deal with this kind of issue with patience that I often feel is running into the reserves! But I found it hard to stop myself thinking cruel thoughts about this person. Nothing too drastic, I wasn’t imagining shoving them off a cliff or any other life-threatening scenario, but I must admit that I was questioning their intelligence, which is probably not very kind. Not everyone can be born clever. (And yes, I’m still working on it.)

After work I went back to the Ramadan Tent with my friend Sahar and some of her Pakistani friends. I find Sahar really interesting because she has always seemed like a very spiritual Muslim to me – she is not too caught up in the practices as prescribed in the Qur’an, but she does believe in God. In fact, her Mum is Muslim, but her Dad is atheist, and that has clearly had some influence. She’s of a similar mind-set to me in that she finds the personification of God off-putting: attributing characteristics to God that make Him seem like a person. In fact, she questions the use of ‘He’ rather than ‘She’ or ‘It’. I tell her that our mutual friend Zainab shared something interesting about this on facebook recently – it was a video of someone arguing that this only came about because in Arabic everything has to have a gender, even inanimate objects. So tables may be male and chairs female. Therefore God can be masculine in terms of the language, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that He has masculine qualities or is masculine by nature. I think this is really interesting, but I’m not sure if I’m 100% convinced. Islam clearly draws a lot on Christianity, and in English we do have an ‘it’. I would imagine that calling the Christian God ‘He’ probably had an influence on Islam. Sahar makes an interesting point that in a patriarchal system, power is associated with the male. If God is all-powerful, how could He possibly therefore be female, according to this line of thinking?

Sahar’s friends are quite relaxed Muslims and don’t necessarily follow all of the rules of Islam to the nth degree, unlike some of my other friends (Fatima is a stickler for the rules! She has me on a tight regime!). One of them is impressed: ‘You get up for fajr? I don’t even get up for fajr!’. This reminds me of a programme on the BBC a few years ago when I was at SOAS myself called ‘Make Me a Muslim’. It was about British women who had converted to Islam and their reasons for converting. If you get a chance to watch it, do, as it’s quite interesting. They tend to go far more to the extreme side of Islam: one of them even opts for a burka, if I remember rightly. This is also evident in those converts who end up going to fight for Islamic State – they opt for a completely radical interpretation of Islam that has no place in modern society. But the point is, that it’s difficult when you haven’t grown up with the religion. All you have are the rules that you have been given. In reality, I don’t think I can think of a single friend (including Fatima!) who doesn’t apply some flexibility of the rules. There are so many of them that it’s almost impossible to keep all of them all of the time (how many people actually do the fajr outside of Ramadan, for example?). Yet I haven’t grown up with Islam and I don’t have the confidence yet to decide for myself which rules I’m OK with breaking occasionally and which are my staples. The easiest option, therefore (theologically, rather than physically) is to attempt to follow all of them. It’s a pretty daunting task and, if you don’t have your loyal friends to guide you along the way, as I do, I imagine it would be pretty easy to lose yourself in the process.[1]

Today I realised that it’s unlikely that I’m going to finish the Qur’an in a week, despite avidly following the prayer times. I therefore took a more haphazard approach and flicked to the end in the knowledge that I probably wasn’t going to ruin the story because most of the sura seem to act as stand-alone writings. At the end of the Qur’an there is a collection of very short sura, which meant that I was able to get through quite a few today. To be honest, I found many of them a bit impenetrable – despite the fact that they have alluring titles like ‘The Elephant’ and ‘The Charging Steeds’. I did really like sura 109 on disbelievers, though probably not for the reasons intended! It states:

Say [Prophet], ‘Disbelievers: I do not worship what you worship, you do not worship what I worship, I will never worship what you worship, you will never worship what I worship: you have your religion and I have mine.’

As an atheist, there is nothing worse than someone trying to convert you! So frequently very religious people can’t get their head around the idea of someone not believing in God: they take it as a carte blanche for conversion. But I have my beliefs too, and I don’t try to convince religious people that they should stop believing in God. I know this is a particular bug-bear of quite a few atheists. So I like this sura: no evangelism here! Perhaps this is why no-one has ever tried to convert me to Islam, but many have tried to convert me to Christianity. I know this is probably a deliberate misinterpretation: it’s more of a ‘let them rot in Hell’ than a ‘leave them in peace’ (at least taken in context with all of the other passages on non-believers) but still. It’s my interpretation and I’m sticking with it!

Lots of the other sura from today talk about greed and wealth, but I want to save that for tomorrow, when I’d like to touch upon poverty. For that, I would really like it if some of my Muslim readers could send me a short paragraph to say why they fast for Ramadan – it would be really helpful.

Khuda hafiz!


[1] Fatima, Sabrina (the other flatmate, who’s barely had a mention yet!) and I went to see an excellent play along these lines last year called ‘My Name Is’.

Day Four

Halfway through! Today God sent me a trial to test my patience. I went into Elephant and Castle centre, very close to where I live. First of all I got my hair cut by a very nice lady from the Dominican Republic who distracted me by chatting in Spanish while lopping off half my hair. Never mind – these things don’t bother me, it will grow back! As I chatted to her in Spanish and explained to her why I was doing Ramadan, I felt really grateful for how multicultural London is, but particularly Elephant and Castle. I love it there because you can get so many different types of food and if you go down to East Street market and give the stall holders a nice smile they will always throw in a bit extra for you! My friend Karen and I joke that if we ever need an ego boost, we know where to go.

But that was not the test of patience. That came later, when I went to pick up a lamp from one of the shops next to the salon. Bear in mind that one of the requirements of Ramadan is not just that you fast, but that you do so with patience. Your behaviour should not be different to any other day – if anything it should be even better, given that it’s a holy month – just because you’re feeling hungry and thirsty, which may make you irritable. This is how our conversation went:

Me: Hello, I’ve come to pick up the lamp I left here last week.

Shopkeeper: That wasn’t me, it must have been my colleague.

Long pause.

Me: Right, OK. Well… do you have it? Is it ready?

Shopkeeper: I don’t know anything about it. Maybe it’s out back.

Me: Would you mind having a look?

Shopkeeper: I don’t have the key for out back.

Me: Oh, I see. It’s just that he said I could pick it up in a couple of days and it’s been a week, so I thought it would be ready.

Shopkeeper: Stares at me blankly and then starts talking to someone else.

Me: Would you mind giving your colleague a call?

He calls his colleague and speaks in Arabic, then starts poking round in some bags at his feet.

Shopkeeper: Here it is.

Me: Fantastic! Is it ready?

Shopkeeper: No.

Me: Oh, I see. (Deep breath). It’s just that he told me it would be, so I’ve come down especially.

Shopkeeper: He said he didn’t know if he could fix it.

Me: Right. Well, should I take it somewhere else, or shall I leave it with you to see?

Shopkeeper: It’s up to you. Maybe he can fix it, maybe he can’t.

Me: Alright, no problem. I’ll come back next week.

Those who don’t know me are probably wondering what is special about this exchange. My Mum, on the other hand, is probably gobsmacked. Let me tell you that patience is not a quality normally associated with my name. But today I think some kind of God-given miracle must have taught me to take a deep breath and not tell the man the 50 shades of incompetent I thought he was!

Talking of God-given miracles, I was struck today by a couple of sentences I read in the Qur’an in sura 6 on ‘Livestock’ (s109):

Say [prophet] ‘Signs are in the power of God alone’. What will make you [believers] realise that even if a sign came to them they still would not believe.

It make me think of a time when I was at university taking a class on accenting ancient Greek (honestly, if anyone can think of a more useless class to prepare you for the future, do let me know. I think my employability actually dropped by taking this one). We were reading a passage of Greek and the teacher was going round the group asking each of us to say where the accent on the next word should be. The problem was, I just couldn’t get it. There were so many rules to follow and I’d only been doing Greek for a year (I had to fast-track it), and by the time it came around to me for the third time and I couldn’t do it, I was starting to feel desperate. The teacher kept pressing me and my fellow students were staring. I got so desperate, I did something I had never done before: I prayed. ‘Dear God, I know I don’t believe in you, but if you’re there, please, please get me out of this class’. Nothing happened… the class continued. But then just as it was coming round to me again… the fire alarm went off. Class dismissed! I have to admit that it left me feeling a bit shaky. Now what?! Had God given me a sign? But after a few hours, as most atheists probably would, I chalked it up to coincidence and carried on as normal. So I guess this passage is right: for a lot of atheists, maybe you could send us a sign and we still wouldn’t believe.

IMG_0393[1]This evening, I went to break my fast at the Ramadan Tent near SOAS university, where I did my Master’s. For those who don’t know SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London), it is a pretty unique place: truly ethnically diverse, it brings together students from all over the world to the last bastion of Marxism. Not a week goes by where there isn’t some kind of protest, normally with some kind of drumming involved. A protest isn’t a proper protest without a drum. The Ramadan Tent was set up by a SOAS alumni three years ago and brings together Muslims and non-Muslims alike for the sehri (the meal when you break your fast). It’s a really fantastic community project and has a lovely atmosphere. Before the prayer there was a talk on the importance of the environment and protecting the natural world that God had created and then they provided everyone with food. They often feed the homeless in this way as well. If you’re in London and get a chance to go, do. Arrive at about 9pm or just before – it’s in Malet Street Gardens on Malet Street.

Lastly, thank-you to my friend Myra, who has been acting as a kind of blog peer-reviewer and preventing me from saying anything too stupid (or correcting me when I do!). If you haven’t read her comments on the blog yet, please do check them out: they are insightful and informative and provide a vital check to my ignorance!

Thanks again for reading, and remember: share, share, share!


Day Three

Today was easy-peasy! I’m not sure if that’s because my body is acclimatising or because it’s the weekend – I suspect the latter. Because I didn’t have to worry about getting up early, I didn’t bother to go to sleep before the fajr – I just stayed up until 3am and then slept until gone 10am, which felt amazing. I was then out all day, distracted by other goings on and came back and napped at 4:30pm, only to wake up again at 7:30pm. I didn’t even really feel any discomfort from the hunger or thirst and didn’t have a headache at all. I should probably add a cautionary note: I think the Qur’an does say something about not reversing your day, i.e. sleeping during the day and waking up at night so that you can eat all night long as you would during the day. But I think as long as it’s just a nap for a few hours it’s probably OK and it felt like my body needed some recovery time.

Now I think it’s confession time! I promise that I haven’t broken my fast at all: during daylight hours not a morsel or droplet has passed my lips and I have read my Qur’an faithfully at every prayer time. But I have accidentally broken some of the other rules on occasion. Today, in an impassioned condemnation of the Tories’ anti-unionisation legislation, the f-word slipped out (sorry to Baroness Warsi, my newest follower!). However, I read in an earlier passage of the Qur’an that accidents are OK, as long as it is genuinely an accident. Some of you are probably wondering what therefore stops me from going about my business swearing like a trooper and calling it an accident. Well, God knows the difference, and that’s what’s important.

Likewise I have accidentally broken the rule on no physical contact with the opposite sex. No, it’s not what you’re thinking, give me some credit! But on Friday at work a member government representative shook my hand. What was I supposed to do, shove my hands in my pockets?! I definitely didn’t want to be seen as rude, particularly given the need in my role to be diplomatic. Later in the day I met a new colleague at the charity for which I am a Trustee and again shook his hand without thinking. And a colleague on Friday gave me his usual double kiss on the cheek in greeting before I could duck away. As I say, these were all accidents, performed without thinking, so I’m not too worried about them. I also wonder about this last one: surely the intention behind it is to prohibit sexual contact, not all contact? I don’t like the implication that any contact with the opposite sex, whether they are a business contact, friend or even more, is necessarily sexual. I suppose when the Qur’an was written (or revealed, whichever you prefer), businesswomen were probably not too common. Your thoughts on this would be welcome – I’m not sure how literally I am supposed to take it, or where it is referred to in the Qur’an.

Today I have finished sura five on women and also made my way through sura 6, ‘The Feast’, though the second half of sura five didn’t seem to have a great deal to say about women, to be honest – it seemed to slip into more of the same on the punishment for disbelievers (Allah really does not like us atheists. A fiery pit of Hell awaits). To balance out my post yesterday though, I should say that my friend Myra is right, it does say in s128 that a woman can instigate a ‘peaceful settlement’ with her husband if she ‘fears high-handedness or alienation’. Good stuff!

One of the things that I’m finding interesting about the Qur’an is just how prescriptive it is. I’m going to draw on some very shaky knowledge of the Bible here, but Christianity has always seemed to me more about values and providing an ethical guide to its followers. I’m not saying that the Qur’an doesn’t do this, but the level of detail that it goes into in terms of the practices that a good Muslim should follow is quite extraordinary. It’s more like a ‘how-to’ of Islam: anything from how to break your fast (with a date, because the sugar enters your blood stream quickly), to how to wash your hands for prayer, to how to divvy up your inheritance. A lot of the advice is very practical. And this is just from the first six sura that I have read so far.

Sura 6 brings up the issue of halal meat. In section 3 it states:

You are forbidden to eat carrion; blood; pig’s meat; any animal over which any name other than God’s has been invoked…

Contrary to anything that UKIP might say, the majority of halal meat in the UK is stunned before slaughter (84% of cattle, 81% of sheep and 88% of poultry, according to the Food Standards Agency). The requirement for halal is only that the animal be alive when slaughtered, but stunning the animal prevents it from feeling pain. Nevertheless, I have to admit that as a non-Muslim, halal concerns me (though not in the way that it concerns UKIP supporters who seemingly have no other interest in animal welfare until it can be warped into their anti-immigration rhetoric). It concerns me because I can never seem to find meat that is both halal and free range, and I am much more concerned about how the animal has lived than how it died. I’ve purchased halal quite a few times (normally if I’m cooking for Fatima) – the butchers in East Street do tend to do a bit of a double take when the green-eyed gori comes in and requests twelve halal chicken legs. Perhaps it would be a different story if I went to a more up-market Muslim area in London. But if I had to choose ethically, I would always choose free range over halal for the quality of the meat and the quality of life of the animal.

Before I sign out for the night, I wanted to give a shout out to Muslim Aid, who I have just seen on the Islam Channel. I was given strict instructions by Fatima before she left that I have to tune for the duha (evening prayer) while I break my fast. Firstly, it was a surprise to see my friend Omar on the channel, drawing a mural for their orphanage in Syria. I was at their launch party for Ramadan and they video-linked to the children, who were all super cute and sang for us! Secondly, it is safe to say that this was the most energetic I have ever seen the Islam channel: their staff are so enthusiastic, and a couple even cried as they were talking about their work. Their passion is a lesson to us all.

My only criticism: why does the Islam Channel never seem to have any women on it? It’s 2015: sort it out!

Thanks for reading. And don’t forget: if you like the post, don’t just like it, share it!

Until next time,