Holy month, or lonely month? Ramadan for isolated Muslims
As the holy month of Ramadan descends upon us, Muslims worldwide will be preparing themselves spiritually, physically, and mentally for their most blessed thirty days of the entire year.
A time when we cleanse ourselves of negative thoughts, toxins, and bad habits. A time in which we give generously and support others who are in a less fortunate situation than ourselves. A time when we abstain from unlimited access to what we take most for granted, food and water.
The Prophet Muhammad once said: “There has come to you Ramadan, a blessed month, which Allah, the Mighty, and Sublime, has enjoined you to fast. In it the gates of the heavens are opened, the gate of hell is closed, and every devil is chained up.”
The breaking of the fast is sacred, and feeding those who have fasted is one of the purest acts one can partake in. This month brings communities together, centred mainly on what’s known as Iftar, the fast-breaking evening meal.
Families and friends will share meals and dates (the ones that you eat!) and this can last throughout the night until Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before the next day’s fast begins. It’s a time that everyone comes together in ways that don’t happen as often throughout the year.
This month in Islam is of supreme importance, as the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during the month of Ramadan in the year 610. It’s for this reason that Muslims aim to finish reading the entire scripture throughout the month.
"I missed how the house suddenly became a samosa production scheme the day before Ramadan. Sitting around the dinner table with everyone at Suhoor while barely being able to keep my eyes open. The satisfaction of shouting from the top of my lungs 'it’s time as soon as it would hit Iftar'"
But what does this month look like for Muslims who have to perform their acts of worship in isolation? Those who have had to move out for university, those who have had to leave in search of better work prospects.
Ali is a young British-Iraqi football player who is signed by Stoke City FC. A sharp left forward with a thunderous right foot, at the tender age of 17 he has already featured in the starting 11 for their U21’s side. I got the chance to speak to him about his feelings ahead of his first Ramadan away from home.
“I left home at the age of 16 to further my football career,” he tells me, “leaving my family home was quite difficult as I’d lived there pretty much all of my life, but I got used to my new environment quickly.”
Having grown up in Manchester, where the Muslim population is 13%, the one-hour drive south to Stoke-on-Trent sees the figure drop to below 10%, meaning that Ali is part of an even smaller minority.
“Home is where the heart is and I miss home every day, but I have an amazing family, who I speak to a lot.” Ali’s words reveal his fondness for his family, who are supporting his football career from afar.
His intense schedule sees him training every weekday and the majority of his games are held on Saturdays. Post-match he will travel home to Manchester, from whichever city he will be playing in, whether it be near or far. He gets to spend the evening and the following morning or afternoon at home, before having to travel back to Stoke-on-Trent on Sunday evenings.
“This will be my first Ramadan alone, and to be honest, I’m gutted that I can’t spend it with my family, but it will be a new experience that I’ll never forget.”
Ali’s dedication to his craft is second to none, and these sacrifices will not be in vain. Having previously featured for Sweden’s U18s, he recently pledged to play nationally for his country of heritage.
It will be Ali and his peers who inspire Iraqis all over the globe, and I say this from more than a sporting perspective. I’m grateful for the opportunity to understand his spiritual journey, and it’s the narration of these stories that give us strength, in the hope we can all be steadfast in our faith.
The struggle of isolation during Ramadan doesn’t just affect those who have left home.
Jamal grew up in a non-religious family, having discovered his path to Islam in his teens. Without a direct support network, much of his study on his faith was self-taught, and he would avoid performing acts of worship in front of his family.
“When it comes to doing Wudu (Islamic cleansing ritual) and praying, these are things I do in private, out of view of anyone. I don’t believe my family outwardly has an issue with my belief system, but it’s something I’ve always felt more comfortable keeping to myself, as I don’t want to engage in any awkward conversations.”
He looks forward to the day he can live in his own home, stating that this is when he will truly feel at ease. His family is sympathetic and supportive of him during Ramadan, but as he’s the only one fasting, it can be a lonely experience.
“In the meantime, I can only try to be the epitome of good character, setting an example for my siblings and parents through my actions and behaviour. One day, everything will make sense, and I pray that my efforts can inspire my family to truly understand my faith and beliefs.”
And with that being said, I would love to share a beautiful Ayah (verse) of the Quran, from the Surah (chapter) Al-Baqarah: “And seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, it is a burden except for the humble.” – Quran 2:45
The majority of young Muslims who did leave home did so for the purpose of a university.
An age-old stance of anti-Islamic speech claims that Muslims do not like women to be educated. The oldest university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman. The University of al-Qarawyyin in Fez, Morocco, was founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, and it developed into one of the world’s most renowned educational institutions. I spoke to a few young women who left home to study, to find out what they missed most about home during Ramadan.
Sumaiyya left her family home in Leeds to study in London at 18. It took her some time to adjust to a new environment, as she was living alone in her student accommodation.
"I’d taken for granted how ‘normal’ it was to be visibly Muslim"
“I was quite shy about my faith at the start of living with my flatmates,” she recounts, having been nervous to tell them early on that she wasn’t comfortable socialising at a pub. She didn’t want to burden them at the time, even though it was a compromising situation internally.
A few days later she explained her position and feelings to them, and she was pleased to hear they had no concerns with finding alternate social settings. “Overall, my flatmates have been very respectful and were already quite understanding about my faith.”
When speaking to her about Ramadan, she poetically told me about all of the little experiences that made the month so special.
“I missed how the house suddenly became a samosa production scheme the day before Ramadan. Sitting around the dinner table with everyone at Suhoor while barely being able to keep my eyes open. The satisfaction of shouting from the top of my lungs “it’s time, as soon as it would hit Iftar.
"The peaceful evenings of going to Taraweeh prayer, but struggling to find parking near the mosque because everything was so full. I missed how everyone would have weird mood swings during the day, but the excuse was always ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’.”
She missed most the unity of being with her loved ones and distinctly reminisces about hearing her father reciting the Quran, giving her feelings of peace.
Another student who has faced similar experiences is Iman. She left Brighton to come to London at the age of 19 and has similar memories of missing home, citing that being distant from community spirit and usual traditions can increase feelings of isolation and sadness. She misses preparing food for Iftar and sitting and watching the Kaaba in Makkah (Saudi Arabia) on TV with her late father.
“These are the core memories that have stayed with me for over a decade of fasting and are the moments that I yearn for the most, especially after he passed away and in my first Ramadan without him.”
"Who, when faced with a disaster, say, “Surely to Allah we belong and to Him we will all return.” – Quran 2:156
Another issue that Iman struggled with was navigating her course while simultaneously fasting. This holy month has ended up clashing with her assignments and exams, from GCSEs to A Levels and now university.
“You can never prepare enough, and it’s still difficult as each year of our lives brings different responsibilities. When I was at home, I didn’t have to worry about cooking or losing time by travelling far to reach the Masjid (mosque). Being a student living away from home, I have to factor these things in.”
It’s specifically mealtime that becomes a focal point of isolation during Ramadan.
“My mother’s love language is always having food on the table,” Mehvish tells me.
She left home at 18, the first in her family to move away. It was a massive culture shock to her, going from Birmingham, whose Muslim population was 29.9%, to Bristol, where the figure is 5.1%.
“I’d taken for granted how ‘normal’ it was to be visibly Muslim.”
These statistics proved to have an effect on her day-to-day life. She narrates that there was no prayer room in her department, and one was only set up after three years, with those years consisting of praying under staircases and in random rooms throughout campus.
“I was also the only hijabi in my year and it was strange to answer questions about my faith, why I didn’t drink alcohol, and about Ramadan. And yes, not even water.”
I asked if her university accommodated Muslims during Ramadan. She told me that the ISOC (Islamic Society) was good at providing a safe space for Iftar, but she wished they had occurred more often.
Iman also wished that more resources were available, stating “I think some sort of counselling, drop-in or check-in service would have been great for Muslims moving away from home to have a safe space to discuss the things they are coming across at university, as it can be a whole different world which is scary.”
Being the head sister of her ISOC, she successfully coordinated with the Student Union to arrange a large communal Iftar, followed by Taraweeh (collective night prayers), as well as extending the closing times of prayer rooms to allow for more worship at the university.
“Alhamdulillah (All glory be to God), I get to work with incredible sisters to share our knowledge and work on preparing for Ramadan through Halaqas (religious gatherings for study) and Quran circles too.”
Lastly, I spoke to Matt, an English revert to Islam of 22 years, whose experience of an isolated Ramadan provided me with quite a juxtaposition of opinions.
“When I first embraced Islam in 2001, I was in the family I had married into, so I was never alone. It wasn’t until after my divorce seventeen years later, and living in a single room in Tottenham in 2019, that I tasted my first Ramadan alone.”
He speaks fondly of his beautiful experiences at the time, including speaking to his friends daily, many of whom he’d made while working in the Muslim charity sector. The memories revolve around being invited for Iftar often, but his favourite aspect was the solitude throughout the rest of the week, claiming it enabled him to focus on his prayers, his worship, and a new chapter of his life.
“If I had been a new revert, I may have felt very differently about my situation. Some places are open for Iftar and very welcoming, but at the same time, it can be daunting to go into these social situations if you don’t know people. Ramadan is one of Allah’s greatest blessings, and now I look forward to it every year Alhamdulillah.”
Wherever we may be in our lives, in any given place or at any given time, Ramadan provides us with the ultimate test. And with this comes the ultimate reward, should we stay steadfast.
We must remember to be grateful for all that we’ve been given on this earth, and use this month as a period for reflection. It is up to us to become the best versions of ourselves, and InshaAllah (God willing) we can inspire the people of the world to be more patient, understanding, charitable, and kind to one another.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_