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As Ramadan dawns, London Muslims embrace the long fast

Mosque congregations show little appetite for a controversial proposal to shorten the 19-hour fast

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

Ali, a 20-year-old Muslim based in London, is diligently helping prepare the first iftar meal of Ramadan – but it is the hunger of the mosque congregation as whole, rather than his own, that is top of mind.

He is standing in the Mahfil Ali mosque in Harrow, northwest London, which is housed in modest Portakabin-like buildings, a temporary arrangement while a new $12.6 million community centre is built next door.

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The rickety green-painted building seem a world away from the UK capital’s vast, golden-domed Central Mosque that borders the leafy Regent’s Park – but material grandeur is not, of course, what the Holy Month is all about.

For Ali, who did not give his surname, a key part of Ramadan is being selfless. So this year he is helping prepare the meal that marks the end of the fast, rather than rushing to consume it.

“I was always eating first; now I’m helping first,” he said.

It is a spirit shared by many of London’s million-plus Muslims, as mosque congregations swelled for Thursday’s evening prayers as the first fasting day of Ramadan drew to a close.

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Many spoke of both their determination to adhere to the long fast – which, due to the long summer days in the UK, extends to about 19 hours – as well as fostering links with their community, at a time of heightened hostility towards British Muslims.

‘Open the doors’

Miqdaad Versi, a member of the executive committee of the Shiite Ithna'ashari Community of Middlesex (SICM), which runs the Mahfil Ali mosque, says community engagement is an especial focus during Ramadan.

The mosque – which sees its congregation grow to about 300 a day during Ramadan – is hosting short TED-style talks every evening of the Holy Month.

Scheduled speakers include the Reverend David Tuck, curate at the Parish Church of St Alban, and Dr Michael Hilton, rabbi of a nearby synagogue.

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“That embodies who we are. We’re not supremacists – we don’t think we’re better than everyone else… Our principle has always been to engage as much as possible,” said Versi. “We think we can learn from it.”

Versi, who is also Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, pointed to the mosque’s interfaith activities, work with the homeless and support of a local food bank. Mahfil Ali is ostensibly a Shiite mosque but for many years leant its premises to a local Sunni congregation. “We believe it’s the right thing to do, to open our doors,” said Versi.

This spirit has informed the design of a new, permanent centre to be built at the site of the Mahfil Ali mosque. As much a community centre as a mosque, the five-floor complex will house a gym, lecture theatre, interfaith room and restaurant – along with, of course, an Islamic prayer room.

The Salaam Centre, set to open in 2018, is “revolutionary” among British mosques as it will be open to everybody, whether Muslim or not, said Versi.

Fasting times

Given Ramadan 2015 coincides with the June 21 summer solstice – the longest day of the year – there has been heated debate over fasting times.

For London Muslims, the longest day will see the daily fast start at 2.40am and end at 9.24pm. Some UK Muslims will fast for more than 19 hours: In northerly Scotland, for example, the days are even longer; some Muslims have a different interpretation of when dawn starts, and start fasting earlier.

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Dr Usama Haswan, a Muslim academic from anti-extremism group Quilliam, sparked heated debate earlier this month when he said it would make more sense for UK Muslims to follow Makkah timings, as daylight lasts much longer in northern countries.

Versi said the topic was interesting – but he did not see many Muslims opting to fast for shorter periods.

“It’s not something that has mass support in the Muslim community at the moment,” he said of Haswan’s fatwa on fasting. “Some people might argue that 12 hours in Saudi Arabia, in the heat, is harder than 17 [or more] hours here.”

East London Mosque

There was little appetite for shorter fasts at the inner-city East London Mosque, located in the Whitechapel district on the other side of the UK capital.

Larger and more prominent than Mahfil Ali, the mosque attracts up to 10,000 worshippers each day over Ramadan.

Salman Farsi, communications officer at the East London Mosque, said members of the congregation are not generally welcoming Haswan’s recommendation to break the fast while it is still light.

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“There’s no way the community will shorten their fasts because of convenience,” he said. “A 19-hour fast is not that tough. You do get hot and bothered, but it’s manageable. In places like Norway, they follow London times because sometimes the sun never sets.”

The East London Mosque is hosting Ramadan gatherings, charity fundraisers, and daily iftar meals for about 600 people.

Farsi said local homeless people sometimes come in to the mosque for a free meal. Members of the congregation do not object, partly because fasting makes them more understanding of the plight of the homeless.

“The people here can emphasise,” he said. “The wider spirit of Ramadan is to share Ramadan, even with your non-Muslim colleagues.”

In some Muslim countries, those found publically eating and drinking during daylight hours over Ramadan face severe penalties, sometimes including fines or jail terms.

But in the UK, life goes on as normal for the non-Muslim majority. In Whitechapel, one of the more rough-and-ready London districts, daytime brings a sensory overload from bustling takeaway joints, people eating and drinking on the street, and the open doors of pubs.

Farsi said he wouldn’t have it any other way. For him, stepping out of the mosque and seeing other people eating and drinking is all part of the Ramadan experience. “That’s the beauty of it, that’s where the real test lies,” he said. “That’s a part of the fast. I wouldn’t expect the shop shutters to be pulled down.”

London Central Mosque

In the expansive courtyard of the London Central Mosque, a group of men prepare for iftar, meticulously cleaning fruit and arranging trays of dates.

A man who identified himself as ‘Chilli’, in his 30s, said the golden-domed mosque marks a focal point for the diverse mix of London Muslims.

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He considers there to be strong deterrents to breaking the Ramadan abstinence, outlined in the Quran, and is certainly not going to try cutting the duration of his fast.

“You can’t,” he said. “You’d have to be in an extreme situation, like in the Arctic, where the sun doesn’t set.”

Back at the Mahfil Ali mosque in Harrow, 59-year-old Mustapha said he felt calm despite approaching 19 hours without food or drink. He started this year’s fast one day early – “just practicing”, he jokes – but said the long daily duration was not overwhelming. “I take it in my stride,” he said.

As iftar time arrives, worshippers break their fast with a humble date or two, and glass of water. After more prayers in the florescent-lit room, it is time for the main end-of-fast meal. Men sit on the floor in long rows, eating generous portions of fragrant curry and rice.

Ali is still outside, helping with the food. He recalls bringing several of his non-Muslim friends to the mosque to show them what goes on. “They like it,” he said. “Everyone’s friendly, and the food is nice.”