By Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan
08 June 2018
Wherever they live, and now Muslims reside throughout the world, they seek during the holy month of Ramadan to come closer to Allah by obeying His commands that include kindness to all, particularly family, neighbors, the weak and animals, good behavior, patience and giving charity. Fasting during the month, supplemented by prayers and piety, is a means to seek Allah’s pleasure.
I’ve observed Ramadan in several places – from cities in the United States where I was the only Muslim, to the Grand Mosque in Makkah where I was among hundreds of thousands of people engrossed in reading the Holy Qur’an or prayers. I also prayed in Madinah and Jerusalem and my wife and I also visited the cave of Hira where the Prophet (peace be upon him) first received Allah’s message through the angel Gabriel.
But we have spent most Ramadans in Canada where we live. Our first Ramadan in Ottawa was easy physically because it was winter and the days were short. But there was no mosque and no major community and we felt isolated spiritually.
That was in 1965. We came in November as Ramadan started. Dawn began around 6 a.m. and the sun set around 4:25 p.m. My colleagues at work teased me that I was cheating because I brought my lunch box.
Of course, they knew I’d be in office until long after sunset.
My earliest memories of Ramadan are from Bhopal, India, where I was born. The hardest part for kids wasn’t abstaining from food and drink but getting up from deep slumber before dawn to have something, even milk and corn flakes.
Later, I studied at the University of the Philippines in Manila. During Ramadan we had summer holidays and Congressmen Domocao Alonto and Amilbangsa Omra invited me to spend the holy month with their families in southern Philippines. They were extremely hospitable, as were some Syrians working in Cotabato. They treated me like family for which I was grateful. But what amazed me the most was the beautiful recitation I heard in their homes. In India and Pakistan women read the Holy Qur’an silently. But in Mindanao and Sulu, women recited the holy book aloud and in an enchanting tone.
For the pre-dawn Suhoor my hosts prepared several kinds of fish. For the evening dinner they offered more fish. Being used to vegetables and chicken, I told them something was very fishy about their diet.
My most moving Ramadan, however, was in Makkah and Madinah. Being in the holy mosque in Makkah and Madinah is always overwhelming – with people of all backgrounds, dressed simply, praying together. It humbles you to be in the holy places as a part of the human family. I feel most at ease in Makkah and Madinah.
In Ramadan, when the sun sets people stopped reading the Holy Qur’an or making rounds of the Kaaba. Attendants spread plastic sheets throughout the mosque and brought dates and yogurt for every person. Then the attendants quickly removed the mats and the prayers began. We’d then go for dinner and return to the mosque for the special night prayers. I was stunned by the efficiency and the hospitality – several families insisted we break our fast with them.
Not all my Ramadans were this pleasant.
When I was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Muslim students prayed together. But when I worked with newspapers in Flint, Grand Rapids and Holland, Michigan, for about 15 months as part of my education, there were no Muslims in those cities. And no Internet either. I fasted, ate and prayed alone. I wouldn’t even have known it was Ramadan if it hadn’t been for my father’s letters from Pakistan.
When we came to Canada in 1965, Ottawa had no mosque. We prayed at home, or with friends. For Eid prayers that mark the end of Ramadan we went to a church or the embassy of Egypt or the high commission of Pakistan. Now Ottawa has several mosques. Many mosques arrange daily free Iftars and food for everybody.
After the formation of the Muslim Coordinating Council of the National Capital Region, a Shia mosque started inviting Sunnis to break their fast and have dinner with them. The hosts asked a Sunni imam to lead the prayers and all Shias, including the imam, prayed behind him. A Sunni mosque then started inviting Shias to break their fast, have dinner and pray with them.
Ramadan, And Canada, Brings Muslims Together.
But Muslims also try to come closer to their neighbours and friends of other faiths. Several families share food with their fellow Canadians of other religions. In Canada, the diversity of people, ethnicities and religion is respected and appreciated. So we thank our Creator with humility for the blessings we enjoy in our country. Canada is by no means perfect but more than any other country I know, it cares for its people and treats them with the respect and dignity that all human beings deserve.
Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge. He has received the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.