How I’m using books to connect with the Muslim world this Ramadan

The coronavirus crisis means that Ramadan will be very different for Muslims. Here, one writer explains how she'll be turning to books to help her mark the month.

Ramadan 2020
Image: Ryan MacEachern

Every year during Ramadan, my friend hosts an Iftar (breaking of the fast) at her house. I go, I eat way too many starters – think samosas, mozzarella sticks, mini sausage rolls – then pray alongside my friends. And then I eat some more. We go late into the night, so late that I don't eat breakfast before the next day's 18-hour fast.

It's not my only annual Ramadan tradition. For the past few years I’ve headed to the Ramadan Tent Project, usually with a group of Muslim and non-Muslim friends. A tent set up in a central London square, it hosts free Iftars every night for anyone – regardless of background or religiosity – to attend. We all, from CEOs to retail workers to students, sit on the floor and eat exactly the same food. It's a chance to see friends I only see once a year at this time, and to meet new people from different cultures and traditions.

And finally, on the 27th night of Ramadan I head to my local mosque, where I pray pressed shoulder to shoulder with people I've never meet before. As we leave, we're handed a small box of mithai – traditional Pakistani sweets typically made from sugar, condensed milk, and a bit more sugar for good measure.

'On the 27th night of RamadanI head to my local mosque, where I pray pressed shoulder to shoulder with people I've never meet before'

Ramadan is a very personal time, but for me and many other Muslims, it's also about the community of those I know and love, and a wider community of Muslims (the name given to the worldwide Muslim community is "ummah"). But this year, because coronavirus means we can't see our friends and our mosques are closed, we all of us run the risk of forgetting that Ramadan is about connection, not just to Allah and our faith but also, and just as importantly, to each other.

So, this year, my plan is to use books and reading to help me connect with and learn more about the Muslim community that I can't physically interact with.

I’ll start by compiling my "Muslim bookshelf", a collection of books by authors of various religious and cultural Muslim backgrounds. I've been saving a number of books, and I can think of no more perfect time to sink into the poetry of Rumi, head to Turkey with Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul or go to a fantasy world inspired by ancient Arabia with Hafsah Faizal's We Hunt the Flame.

'Twelve-year-old me would have been ecstatic to see a Muslim teenage superhero; 30-something me is still thrilled'

As I sit in my home, I'll be transported to countries, cultures and times far from my own. Every Muslim is different, and fiction is one way in which I'll gain a window into the lives of those who practice and those who don't, those I share cultural and religious practices with, and those whose day-to-day experiences are completely unfamiliar from mine. 

To remind me of the inspiring women in my life who I won't be seeing, I'll read Sherin Khankan's Women are the Future of Islam. Khankan founded the first mosque for women in Europe, and the book is her manifesto for change. I'll also work my way through the writing of Nawal El Sadaawi, the legendary Egyptian feminist.

It's not just about new books; I'll reread old favourites, like my collection of Ms Marvel comics, written by G Willow Wilson and featuring Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own title, Kamala Khan. Twelve-year-old me would have been ecstatic to see a Muslim teenage superhero; to be fair, 30-something me is still thrilled. And I’ll look to inspire future generations of Muslim children by pre-ordering a few copies of Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World to give as gifts. 

'I'll turn to books for food inspiration, because there are likely to be few moments where I'm not thinking about eating'

Obviously, I'll also turn to books for food inspiration too, because there are likely to be few moments during the long days of fasting where I'm not thinking about eating and drinking. I'll be flicking through my favourite Yotam Ottolenghi book – Plenty (which has a great recipe for aubergine croquettes) – and perhaps planning, as a post-Ramadan treat, to make my version of his divine lamb shawarma. All things Ottolenghi remind me of a friend, whose birthday party was the first place I tasted the lamb shawarma at, and who on more than one occasion has gifted me chocolate brownies from his shop. It will be food that connects me to her this Ramadan, even though we won't see each other.

And of course, I'll rustle up some dishes created by Nadiya Hussain (her Not Prawn Toast is a hit in my family); we Muslims might not be able to agree on which day Ramadan begins or when Eid is, but we are all united in our love of Nadiya. 

'Ramadan 2020 is set to be unlike any Ramadan I have known in my lifetime'

Of course, reading books and whipping up delicious dishes from some of them will only connect me so far; it's in talking about what I'm reading that I'll really feel close to the Muslim community that I'll miss being part of this Ramadan. I'll be taking pictures of the books I'm reading and sharing them on Instagram, in the hopes that others in turn will share what they'll be reading, and perhaps even taking on my recommendations. And I'll be taking part in #RamadanReadathon, a month-long celebration of Muslim authors.

Reading is key for Muslims; the first word of the Quran – which I’ll also be taking time to read – revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was “iqra”, which is often translated as “read” (it can also mean “recite”). Ramadan 2020 is set to be unlike any I have known in my lifetime, but through the power of books and reading, I’ll feel more connected to my faith at a time when I can’t see people to help me strengthen that connection.

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