Communal unity in practice

Communal unity- Abdullah Drury 1.jpgThe Holy month of Ramadan, ninth in the Islamic calendar, is marked by daylight fast by all able-bodied adult Muslims across the world.

The abstention from food, fluids, tobacco and sex from dawn to dusk poses unique challenges to New Zealand Muslims, especially the further south one travels as the hours of daylight are substantially longer than in the equatorial tropics (where most Muslims live, globally, and where most Islamic institutions operate).

Every evening, Muslims will break the fast with a special meal called Iftar. After the evening prayers there will be extra optional devotional prayers called Tarawih.

Throughout the month, Muslims around the globe also make an added effort to read and recite the Holy Quran, the entire book if possible but at least a few chapters.

The Islamic calendar is based on the cycles of the moon and is thus 15 days shorter than the Gregorian one. Thus, the beginning date of Ramadan and the festival to mark the end, Eid Al Fitr falls on different days each year.

Eid is one of the big events of the Muslim year and is marked in a variety of ways in different Islamic societies. Within New Zealand there will be an exchange of gifts for children after the Eid prayers and a great deal of (sober) socialising.

Ramadan is fundamentally an expression of communal unity in practice.

In his brilliant book, Islam Between East and West the much under-rated Islamic scholar and a former president of Bosnia, the late Alija Izetbegovic wrote: “Fasting is not solely an issue of faith in Islam, it is not only a personal matter of the individual but also a social obligation.”

Fasting unites the rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and convert, in a joint community exercise or discipline in a union of asceticism and joy. Muslims have lived, prayed and fasted in New Zealand for over 130 years now.

Thirty-four years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, 15 Chinese “Mahometans” were recorded in the 1874 government census in Dunstan, Otago.

The first identifiable Muslim to die and be buried in this country was Mohamed Dan, a sailor from Java, who passed away in Dunedin in 1888 and is interred in an unmarked burial plot in the old hospital grounds.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, Akif Keskin (popularly known among Muslims as “The Turk of Dunedin”) operated New Zealand’s first Turkish restaurant in Princes Street. Mr Keskin observed Ramadan when he first arrived in New Zealand and exchanged seasonal greeting cards for Eid Al Fitr with the Turkish embassy in Australia.

In the 1980s, immigrant Muslim men started working in Otago Freezing Works as Halal slaughter men.

The Otago Muslim Association was set up in 1994 by resident university students.

In December 2000, the Association acquired its current Mosque on Clyde Street in Central Dunedin, making it the world’s southernmost centre of Islamic prayers.

There are about 40,000 Muslims in New Zealand presently, including 4000 in the South Island. It is believed there are more than 1000 in the Otago-Southland area.

While it is incumbent on members of the New Zealand Islamic minority to observe Ramadan faithfully, it is also necessary for non-Muslims to understand and respect that local Muslims will be exhausted and physically drained throughout this month.

This is fundamentally a period of peace and deeper meditation for all peoples. It is imperative that as we work together as a nation, we learn to honour and value the different spiritual traditions and customs.

Abdullah Drury is a former social secretary of the Muslim Association of Canterbury. He lives in Christchurch. Email: abdullah@xtra.co.nz

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