This article is the second in a series of articles that explore solutions for the problems facing European Muslims through looking into the character and biography of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims in Europe need to learn the Prophet's etiquette in dealing with people while fasting in Ramadan. Picture
The coming of the month of Ramadan is a time of real happiness in all Muslim countries, simply because it is a special month that comes once a year to refresh the hearts of Muslims and recharge their faith
The coming of Ramadan in the Muslim world has manifestations that can be seen everywhere: decorations in the streets, children holding lanterns and singing Ramadan songs in a major Muslim capital like Cairo, and many other things.
In Europe, Ramadan means a big number of Qur'an reciters and scholars coming from the Middle East to help local communities feel the month.
However, with the sweet comes the sour, and with glamour of the welcome comes the fear of side effects. It seems that the new moon is born many times within the span of a few days and the chants of Muslims have to be heard more than once to denote that the month has begun.
Different Times of Fasting: Are We Missing the Point?
Philanthropy remains for a maximum of 30 days and then it vanishes!
With the breeze of blessed Ramadan arriving, Muslims may receive the month with a view to change for the better in many ways, but one important, yet sad issue remains: the difference over the beginning of the month.
You can find a Pakistani mosque that follows Pakistan's moon sighting, a Turkish mosque that follows Turkey, a mosque that has decided to follow Saudi Arabia, and another mosque mainly frequented by Egyptians and therefore will be following Egypt.
Unfortunately, this is what happens a lot in Europe and the United States.
It would not be impossible to find some members of a family following a certain mosque and starting Ramadan one day later than the rest of the family that follows another mosque. It is as if they are living in two different countries or continents.
And subsequently, the `Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan will be different in timings and this ultimately leads to differences in hearts and a spoiling of the sense of happiness and true joy.
The Prophet's Time: Seeing the Ideal Picture
Why mosques suffer from shortage of people attending prayers and offering funds after Ramadan?
At his time, the Prophet (peace be upon him) made it clear to people that Ramadan is coming to them to teach them many lessons including patience, perseverance, and above all unity.
The adhan, the call for prayers, made by the muezzin was the final alarm that marked the start of the day of fasting and gave a message that Muslims were all one community.
During the nights of Ramadan, Muslims were unified although they were initially praying in their houses. Their unity was simply represented in the form of the worship they observe together even from behind their walls and while staying in their houses.
This worship was the Tarawih Prayer, or the Ramadan night prayers, in which everyone was standing in prayer, reciting the Qur'an and reviving the hearts in the month of the Qur'an.
To this amazing early generation of believers, Ramadan was a new chance to strengthen their sense of belonging to one another and celebrating the unity in everything; unity being one of the objectives of every worship.
To them unity was an objective that could be seen in everything around them and in every command given to them by the Prophet. When the Prophet told them to fast upon sighting the new moon of Ramadan and to break their fast upon seeing the new moon of the following lunar month, Shawwal, he was actually addressing them as a collective body, as a congregation and a community not as individuals, mosques or separate organizations that have no connection with one another.
This was how they celebrated Ramadan in its full sense and got its pleasure in the most perfect form, by celebrating it together and not in isolation.
Ramadan and Seasonal Philanthropy
If you can't feel the spirit of Ramadan, the problem is not in the surroundings, it is rather in you.
In Europe, as well as in other parts of the Islamic world, Ramadan has its impact on the mosques that become packed with people who come from everywhere to join the Tarawih Prayer and enjoy the recitations of the Imams.
With fundraisings to support mosque activities, with money collections to feed the poor and the hungry in the world, and with iftars (meals to break the fast) being provided to the larger community, the mosque becomes a focal point in the life of the Muslim community in Europe.
This utter bliss remains for a maximum of 30 days, and as soon as the end of the month arrives, all these scenes vanish.
The number of the people attending the mosque suffers a steep decline, and the mosques start to complain of the shortage of funds, as if philanthropy and faith were seasonal phenomena.
The impression an outsider can get is that Ramadan has become a celebration rather than a workshop for training. It was meant to train people to carry its spirit throughout the year, and not only for that one month.
Also, the relevance of this lesson to Muslims in Europe is stronger than its relevance to Muslims anywhere else in the world. Especially when we put into consideration that the hectic day-to-day life in Europe leaves little space for spirituality and a person occasionally needs an extra dose of it to carry on throughout the year.
Yet what is happening, is that the dose is taken once and its effect rarely lasts beyond the last night of Ramadan.
Celebration at the Work Place
Instead of taking your whole annual leave in summer, why don't you spare a few days for Ramadan?
Muslims in Europe have a great responsibility in representing Islam properly and bridging gaps between their community and others. Ramadan is a great opportunity to do such work and get rid of or at least decrease stereotypes about Islam.
The lunch hour is an amazing time, when colleagues at work who used to go out with a Muslim for lunch ask him to go out with them as normal, and here come the challenges.
Explaining the idea of fasting might seem odd and strange to people, as issues like laziness and less work energy may jump into their minds. However, Muslims cannot alleviate these side effects by talking only.
Although talking is very important to explain things and make people understand what fasting is all about and what benefits it gives to spirituality; Muslims need to show that their stamina is still the same and the river of energy is still flowing as normal.
The challenge here is to show by actions, and not just words, that the spiritual experience of fasting is a very great one that deserves to be tried.
Muslims can even invite others to fast one day with them. While doing so, philanthropy and feeling the sufferings of the millions of people who face starvation should be brought to light and made clear to them.
The Idol of Ramadan
If Muhammad (peace be upon him) were here in Europe, he would have imparted in the Muslims one call: to utilize the month of Ramadan for the benefit of the whole year.
When Muslims idolize Ramadan, they start to think of it as something that comes and goes, adding little to their lives.
Although people complain about losing the spirit of Ramadan and not feeling it that much in Europe, the problem is not in the place or the surroundings. Rather, it is in the ability, or lack thereof, of Muslims to change their environment in a way that enable them to feel Ramadan and enjoy its amazing effects.
Instead of taking their whole annual leave during the summer, Muslims can save some of their leave for Ramadan, taking some days off to spend in worship and contemplation.
Muslims can take one or two days off during the month or even the last ten days of Ramadan to give a message to themselves that they are purely dedicated to God during these days and need to feel the essence Ramadan.
When Muslims idolize Ramadan, they start to think of it as something that comes and goes, adding little to their lives. Ramadan, for them, boils down to: avoidance of food and drink for some hours, some extra prayers that are performed at night, some more time which is spent in the mosque and some more money that is donated.
The question is: Is that everything? If that is what Ramadan means to a Muslim who lives in Europe, then where is the change?
If we go to work from 9 to 5 and rush home, we may arrive after the time of iftar to find our families finished with their iftar. Or maybe our children will be having theirs later, separately, when each one arrives from his or her own business. So, when are we meeting to celebrate the change and feel the spirit of unity?
If Muhammad (peace be upon him) were here, he would tell every one of us: stop acting as if Ramadan is a temporary phenomenon that doesn't affect our real system of life.
At the end of the day, Muslims cannot achieve unity unless they realize it at their iftar tables. They cannot achieve the spirit of Ramadan unless they create it by their dedication and sense of belonging to one another. Above all, Muslims must make Ramadan a training for the whole year and not just an idol.
It is only through these steps that Muslims can feel Ramadan moving with them wherever they go, by making Ramadan endure, not by borrowing it for a while.
**Currently the Imam of North London Central Mosque (formerly known as Finsbury Park Mosque).He studied Religious Pluralism at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2005. He is also a member of the American Academy of Religion. He is the former imam of the Muslim Community of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He holds a BA in Islamic Studies (English) from Al-Azhar University. He is currently working on his MA thesis on the Sunni-Shi`ah dialogue. He holds Ijazahs in Qur'an and Hadith and Islamic texts from scholars in Egypt, Jordan and UK.