In Honour of Ramadan: Sharing the stories of two of our Muslim practitioners during the holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and the holy month of fasting. It begins and ends with the appearance of the crescent moon. The start of Ramadan fluctuates each year because the lunar Islamic calendar follows the phases of the moon. As such, Ramadan begins 10–12 days earlier each year, allowing it to fall in every season throughout a 33-year cycle.
The beginning and end of Ramadan are determined by a moon sighting committee in Saudi Arabia. As this article is being written it is the day of Eid al-Fitr. Eid Mubarak!
To honour this important time for millions of people around the globe, and for many in the School-Home Support network, we wanted to highlight the stories and wisdom of two of our Muslim practitioners, Abena and Syeda. During this holy month of Ramadan families engage in shared, universal practices, as well as making the experience unique to their own character, backgrounds and traditions.
Abena Opong is a School-Home Support practitioner working in Southwark at Keyworth & John Ruskin primary schools.
In the morning, Abena and her son wake up before dawn. They eat suhoor – the last meal before dawn. For Abena, suhoor is usually dates and water. Her son, who is nine and will fast for just half the day, will have something like cereal, fruit, toast or pancakes. Abena says that the food that Muslims eat for suhoor and iftar – the meal eaten as the sun sets – is dependent on which part of the world you’re from.
The Prophet Muhammad (saw) encouraged those fasting to wake up for suhoor, and he is reported to have said: “Eat suhoor; surely there is much blessing in suhoor.”
Some wake up and gulp down a few sips of water before sunrise to rehydrate before abstention begins, others may have a bowl of porridge or fruit. The idea is to eat foods at this time that support the day’s fast by hydrating and energising the body. Foods that are salty can lead to thirst later in the day, and heavy greasy meals may cause heartburn or sluggishness.
In the morning Abena will read the Quran, listen to lectures and perform the dawn prayers, known as fajr.
Abena notes that Ramadan provides rich learning opportunities for Muslims. Abena is clearly committed to building and increasing knowledge of her faith during this time. She and her friends send messages to share what they have been learning about Islam each day.
“Knowledge is power and knowledge moves you closer to Allah, so it’s very important to continually seek knowledge, and this month is the best time to do it. I am building my spiritual connection with God [during Ramadan] more than any other time. When it is over you really do feel it.”
Some people may go back to sleep after morning prayers but when she is working Abena will stay up and head to work. At her schools many of her colleagues are fasting during Ramadan and so there is a real sense of community: “we encourage each other – they understand what you’re going through”.
Abena is active in her schools’ Islamic communities: her office has been used as a prayer room for her and her colleagues; she has been asked to speak at a school assembly about Ramadan; and she has organised sweet treats for the young people at each of her schools.
“Ramadan is all about giving and charity – giving up false lies, false speech. It is about connecting with the whole – reminding yourself that some people are living in less fortunate situations. Allah says look at those below you, not above you, to remind yourself to always be grateful for what you have, rather than wishing for what you don’t.”
Abena feels that Ramadan makes her want to do her job even better: “even the smallest charitable thing you do for someone else is rewarded [during this time]. I just try to give my young people and parents the best of my experience and my skills. Whatever they’re going through I have an open door policy and I make myself as available as possible.”
When school is over Abena will go home, watch Islamic programmes, plan the iftar meal and perhaps do some cleaning or she will take rest. When asked if she finds fasting challenging Abena replied: “This is my fifteenth Ramadan and so I am used to it. I really get a buzz doing my job during this time, knowing that I am making a difference. Islam is about community and charity, and I live by those rules throughout the year.”
Syeda Rahman is a School-Home Support practitioner working in Tower Hamlets, at Christchurch Primary School.
Syeda’s morning routine looks similar to Abena’s. She and her husband and children will eat suhoor, perform the dawn prayer and either go back to bed or stay awake, depending on what the day holds.
When Syeda is working, her normal routine is to get the bus to work, sign in, check all her emails, and meet the children as they arrive. It has been agreed by School-Home Support and her school that, during Ramadan, Syeda will work through the lunch hour and leave an hour early. “This helps because I am able to use my energy more wisely during the day. Usually after lunch that’s when you can get a bit sluggish and tired, but when I’m fasting I am often more productive.”
During the day there are five prayers that Syeda and practising Muslims, perform. They include: Fajr (sunrise prayer), Dhuhr (noon prayer), Asr (afternoon prayer), Maghrib (sunset prayer), and Isha (night prayer).
When it is time to leave, Syeda signs out, travels home and the family will work out what they will eat for dinner. “As a Bengali family, we eat lots of soft food, so we break the fast with something like soup; meals that are easy on the stomach. When abiding by a Prophetic diet, one might break the fast with certain foods – milk, fresh dates, cucumber or watermelon.”
Syeda has been fasting since she was young and she practises intermittent fasting when it is not Ramadan. “The Prophet Muhammad used to keep fasts Mondays and Thursdays every week. I really feel the physical benefits of fasting. My skin is clearer. I feel more alert. We all need that detox.”
Syeda states that many Muslims take exercise during Ramadan as it really helps to build an awareness of the body’s capabilities, strength and endurance.
“In that way it is not just a spiritual detox, it’s a physical detox. It’s so beneficial for our body and for our mental wellbeing as well. When you’re fasting you have so much energy.”
Eid al-Fitr, ’Holiday of Breaking the Fast’, is the religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide because it marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan.
Syeda says: “We all give zakat during Eid al-Fitr – this is a pillar of Islam, to give to charity. Fitr is an obligation on every Muslim to give £5 per head in the house. It’s for the destitute and goes towards their Eid gifts, perhaps for meat for them to eat on that day.”
There will commonly be a collection at the mosque but Syeda’s Mother-in-Law organises a collection for their relatives in Bangladesh. She will send it to them prior to Eid so that they have it in time for the day of celebration.
For Syeda, she will spend Eid putting up decorations, wrapping up last minute gifts, worshipping, taking morning prayers in the park. There are amazing public events celebrating Eid al-Fitr in London, open to everyone, with stalls, food offerings and fun fares.
“We will go and see our family and celebrate, wearing our best garments. All the neighbours are sharing food. The children are so excited, they are doing a countdown; they can’t wait for Eid!”
Abena will also be celebrating Eid al-Fitr by dressing up in beautiful clothes, going to mosque, praying together, visiting different families. “We eat, we dance, we laugh, we talk.”
In Abena’s final comments about what she’d like people to know about Islam, she told us:
“You can be any race and you’ll be accepted into Islam. We all unite because of our faith. Whatever another Muslim goes through we all feel it together. No matter what you look like you’ll be accepted into the faith. I love the community. Islam has embraced me and made me a better person. It makes you more aware of the way you treat people, and yourself.”
Thank you to Syeda and Abena for taking time to share with us their stories, insights and wisdom about Ramadan and its foundations in charity, community, kindness and resilience. School-Home Support is deeply grateful for the incredible work they, and all our practitioners, do to support our mission of getting every child in school, ready to learn.