Journalist James Fergusson reflects on what he discovered, about himself and about a community, while observing Ramadan last year
Completing the Ramadan fast, one of the five pillars of Islam, was the unexpected highlight of my year spent among Britain’s Muslims.
To begin with, I saw it simply as a handy way of carrying out my research. Muslims are enjoined by the Koran to be especially kind and polite to strangers in their holy month, which I thought could be to the advantage of a nosy non-Muslim interviewer like me. And they would be easy to find, since Ramadan is a time when their communities come together in their mosques, above all for iftaar, the traditional sundown fast-breaking meal that the larger mosques provide, for free, to anyone that turns up for it.
My plan worked. I visited at least twenty mosques in June 2016, criss-crossing the country from Cardiff to Inverness, and not one of them turned me away. I was, rather, treated with kindness, generosity, and friendly curiosity almost everywhere I went. Given the Islamophobic mood of the country in the throes of the Brexit referendum, and the heat of the debate over immigration, I found this openness remarkable – the spirit of Islam at its best.
Over the month I encountered people from every kind of background, of every skin colour, but none ever looked askance at me because I was non-Muslim or white
Over the month I encountered people from every kind of background, of every skin colour, but none ever looked askance at me because I was non-Muslim or white. Islam is a great leveller of differences, above all during Ramadan. I felt at times curiously moved by this bonding experience, aware of a simple but real connection to the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, a quarter of all humanity. I found that Jo Cox, the murdered MP, was right when she said that we have far #moreincommon than divides us.
It was at home in Edinburgh that I first properly saw the point of Ramadan: its extraordinary power to bring people together in a community. A Pakistani Muslim family live two doors up from the house where I live with mine – the only Muslims, truth to tell, on our white and mostly middle-class street. I was on friendly nodding terms with them, but in nine years of living here I had never properly spoken to them – until, last summer, I bumped into the father of the house, Shaukat, and mentioned that I was planning to fast.
‘Ah, Mubarak!’ he said, his face alight with pleasure. ‘I will ask my wife to cook for you!’ We chatted out on the pavement for an hour, starting a friendship that has lasted ever since. Shaheen, Shaukat’s wife, did indeed cook for me. On the first night of Ramadan, as on several nights following, she appeared at our door with Tupperware boxes full of curry, lentils, chapatis. My wife, Melou, who is a keen cook, sent back a dish of her own, and before long she and Shaheen were swapping recipes. One year on, they still are.
As I say in my book, the noted sociologist Ted Cantle, who once chaired a Home Office inquiry into the Oldham race riots of 2001, thinks that the evils of ethnic and religious segregation must be countered by affirmative action from both sides of the divide. ‘We’ve never sold the idea that mixed communities are more exciting places to live, with more going on,’ he says. I am unashamedly proud to have practised, even in a small way, what he preaches – and pleased, too, to have discovered that he is right. My life – my family’s life – has undoubtedly been enriched by my interaction with Islam.
Fasting made me realize how much, and how often, we Westerners ordinarily consume in our comfortable daily lives. Not just meals but the cups of tea that usually fuel and punctuate my writing time, not to mention the cigarettes, and mints – it all had to go. The kitchen, usually the centre of family life, suddenly became peripheral to mine. I did not expect it, but the immersive self-discipline Ramadan demands led me to look at Western consumerism in general with fresh eyes. It really does sharpen one’s appreciation of what it is to have nothing – just as the Prophet intended.
The standard Muslim response is to donate generously to charity – more generously, indeed, than any other segment of British society – and this, too, left a big impression on me. Major fund-raising drives were in train at every mosque I visited. According to the Charity Commission, British Muslims raised around £100 million during Ramadan 2016, the equivalent of £38 a second.
Fasting is not for the faint-hearted. I found it a gruelling experience, particularly in the first week before my body had adjusted to the reduction of calories. Denying oneself water on a hot day brings its own problems; and by Allah the fasting day is long in Scotland when Ramadan falls over the summer solstice. As I found on 21 June in Inverness, the site of Britain’s most northerly mosque, daylight lasts for almost 21 hours.
I emerged from the month not just 9kg thinner but wiser about Islam, and perceptibly closer to my Muslim countrymen. It is a uniquely existential experience for non-Muslims. Eccentric though it may sound, I recommend it to anyone who has not tried it.
More about the author
'A SERIOUSLY NECESSARY BOOK.' ROWAN WILLIAMS, FORMER ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
'A MUST READ.' MIQDAAD VERSI, MUSLIM COUNCIL OF BRITAIN
'A COMPELLING AND COMPASSIONATE SURVEY OF BRITISH ISLAM.’ THE GUARDIAN
'A TIMELY BOOK.' BARONESS WARSI
'HUGELY IMPORTANT.' PETER OBORNE
'HEARTENING.' DAVID ANDERSON QC
In this groundbreaking book, James Fergusson travels the length of Britain to explore our often misunderstood Muslim communities, and to experience life on both sides of our increasingly segregated society.
The face of Britain is changing. The Muslim population has more than doubled over the last twenty years, and is projected to do so again over the next twenty. A societal shift of this size and speed has inevitably brought growing pains, with the impact on our communities becoming ever more profound – as well as painful, because in the eyes of many, Islam has a problem: the extremist views of a tiny minority, which, when translated into action, can result in catastrophic violence.
The danger of this extremist threat - or our response to it - is that we are collectively starting to lose faith in the cultural diversity that has glued our nation together for so long. Our tolerance of others, so often celebrated as a ‘fundamental British value,’ is at risk.
In this groundbreaking book, James Fergusson travels the length of Britain to evaluate the impact these seismic shifts have had on our communities. With the rise of nationalist movements, growing racial tensions and an increasingly out of touch political elite, what does it mean to be a Muslim in Britain? What is life like on both sides of this growing religious divide? And what can we do to heal the fractures appearing in our national fabric?
Al-Britannia, My Country is a timely and urgent account of life in Britain today, a call to action filled with real-life experience, hard truths and important suggestions for our future.