On the meaning of iftar and Ramadan: A personal perspective. (Lecture held at Amsterdam United’s Iftar)

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim

Ini a nen fu Gado, a moro Bun Fasi Wan, a moro Sari Ati Wan

In the name of God, the most Gracious, most Compassionate

I would like to start with a special shout-out to Isa and Amsterdam United for organizing this event and inviting me to speak, which is my pleasure.

For the sake of clarity, I will first explain a few technical terms.

The meal one takes at dawn before the day of fasting starts is called suhur and the meal one takes at sunset after a day of fasting is called iftar, which is linguistically link to the Arabic word for “breakfast”, which is quite interesting, since the English word “breakfast” is derived from the expression “breaking the fast”. So those two are the main rituals of Ramadan.

Another important ritual in Ramadan is called “taraweeh”. Taraweeh is a cicle of extra prayers performed after the fifth and thus last prayer of the day. The word “taraweeh” has a link with the Arabic word for “pause” or “break”, since in the time of the Prophet, pbuh, people would frequently take breaks between the different prayer cycles.

The question “What does iftar mean to you?” is, for me, intimately connected to what Ramadan means to me, for iftar is, next to suhur and taraweeh, one of Ramadans most important rituals. For me, Ramadan is about multiple things: Conversion. Self-restraint and self-discipline. Reflection Spiritual joy. Abundant blessings, both hidden and manifest. But also hardship. Loneliness. (Having to) figure things out for yourself and having to invent the wheel all on your own.

Fasting during Ramadan is possibly, next to the first pillar, which is the declaration of faith, the most popular, beloved and widely practiced pillar of all.

It is considered a very important marker of Muslimness, right along with not consuming pork and alcohol, and, for women, wearing hijab. (The latter being a tangled web of issues on its own)

Many Muslims who aren’t particularly religious partake in it and even some ex-Muslims have a fondness for it.

Once, a leftist Turkish atheist activist-friend invited me to come with her to Istanbul during Ramadan, and told me how she loved the moment that the adhan, which is the call to prayer, was recited and how, even though she was an atheist, had a great respect for the discipline of those who fast.

An Iranian atheist also told me about how he started to fast half days as a child and how his grandmother told him that God would make those half days a whole day, and that if he would have an Iranian community around him in Holland, he would surely fast.

My own relationship with Ramadan started quite early, through two circumstances.

The first time I became aware of Ramadan and its rituals was as a young girl growing up in Amsterdam South-East, a -mainly- working class, multicultural neighbourhood. School- and classmates of me and my sister who where of Moroccan, Turkish, Pakistani, Iranian and Hindustani-Surinamese descent and their parents would fast and talk about Ramadan and fasting, even though I do not recall anyone using the word “iftar”.

The second way in which I became familiar with Ramadan is through out friendship with our neighbours. The family living nextdoor consisted of a white-Dutch Catholic woman, married to a Muslim Egyptian man, and at the time they had two sons. My mother and she became close friends, and subsequently our families were friends for many years. So the father of the family and their sons would fast and comment on that.

Fast forward some 10-odd years and here I was, a new convert, fasting for the very first time. I had converted in 2003, just after my birthday and just before the start of Ramadan, and I was (very) eager to fast.

At the time, there were not very many books, YouTube-tutorials and Islamic shops.

I had to basically find it out for myself and I had to get up early and fast on my own, without the guidance & explanation most born Muslims receive from a young age.

However, my father supported me by buying me my very first prayer-rug and his wife gave me a cd with Sufi-music. And once, my father woke up with me at three o’clock in the morning while I was eating suhur.

Later on, my mother, a convinced and sincere Christian to this day, fasted two full Ramadans and sometimes also fasted during the year.

One of my very first iftars consisted of jugs full of lemon zinger tea (from the organic brand which was favored by my stepmother at the time) and french fries with chicken satay with very fattish peanut sauce. Needless to say, it didn’t work out well. Unsurprisingly, I became sick and probably would have rather stuck by the healthy meal of soup, rice & chicken my father cooked me.

Another iftar-meal during my first Ramadan consisted of scrambled eggs and toast, because my stomach had actually shrunk due to the days of fasting. Through fasting and iftar I got to know dried dates, since they are commonly used to break ones fast with.

I also got to know harira, a Moroccan soup which is commonly eaten to break the fast with, and I ate if tor the very first time at the business establishment of a Moroccan friend who had to work late, so his wife had cooked him harira and he had brought it with him to break his fast.

The first few Ramadans were hard, because I had no community of fasting Muslims around me.

However, I did love to fast and also loved the spiritual fulfillment it gave me. Everything was & felt different: The very air and sky were different. And while I normally ate and eat every 2-3 hours and get very hungry if I didn’t/don’t, fasting was quite different. I was on a kind of spiritual high and I loved it, even much so that when I couldn’t fast in 2006 due to health issues, I literally cried because I loved & missed it so much.

Even now, I can feel the blessing of Ramadan, the soft, spiritual energy and how a lot of things I have been wanting to do for my health, such as walking more, eating less sugar and the like, now are going so easily.

During my first Ramadan, everything was new, so I was trying to learn how to fast and pray, but it was to hard on me the first time, so I only fasted for two weeks.

During my second Ramadan, I managed to fast the whole month. During my first year as a Muslim, I started to befriend more and more -mainly Moroccan- Muslims, through internet fora and political activism and I read and debated a lot about Islam. Befriending these people had good sides and downsides.

On the one hand, I received a lot of support and friendship, on the other hand I was also on the receiving end of judgment and scrutiny – and sometimes this double attitude even came from the very same person, which at times ofcourse could be confusing for a girl of 17, going on 18, who tried to make sense of herself, the world and her newly adopted faith.

For instance, I remember talking to a young Moroccan woman and referring to myself as “a new Muslim”. She rushed to reassure me that I wasn’t “new”, but when I told her that I had fasted for two weeks instead of the officially prescribed four weeks, her reaction was judgmental and dismissive.

Most of the time, these peoples reactions & attitudes were reflections of their own anxieties and insecurities, but ofcourse I didn’t realize that back then.

During my first Ramadan, I remember going to the library near to where my father lived at the time and withdrawing as many books on islam as I could. It was then & there I became acquainted with the work ot the late, great, Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatima Mernissi. Later on, I also read the work of Amina Wadud, the African-American scholar, professor and godmother of Islamic feminism.

Also, I remember being invited by the parents of a classmate for iftar. His mother was Turkish, his father was white Dutch and they were very conservative, politically active and hospitable, and it was with them I visited a mosque for taraweeh for the very first time. The mosque was a Turkish mosque in Haarlem and it was located in an old school building. The young teenage daughter of the aforemented family took me to the ladies’ room and explained me how to do wudu, the ritual washing which is required before one prays. And then, we went into the women’s prayer room, since most mosques are segregated by gender.

She went to her Turkish grandmother and kissed her hand in greeting, since in the Meditteranean world, it is common for people to kiss the hand of their grandmother, grandfather, father, older brother, or anyone who is close to them & older or of higher status. Muslims who are part of a Sufi tariqa/mystical order also often kiss the hand of their shaykh/shaykha (master/mystical teacher)

When I entered the room, I really didn’t know what to do, which was made worse by the fact that no-one greeted me or said a word to me, even though the energy in the room in and of itself was positive. I started to pray, but because I was just learning to pray, it took a long time. And then taraweeh started, but it was hard to keep up because Turks tend to pray very fast. At the time I thought that it was because of me, but later on I discovered that born non-Turkish Muslims also have a hard time keeping up and sometimes even joke about it.

Through trial and error I also discovered the diversity of practices between different Muslim communities in Holland. For instance, for Moroccan women, especially the younger generation, it is & was normal to go to taraweeh, to Friday prayers and to the Eid prayers, while Turkish women attend taraweeh and Eid prayers, but not Friday prayers.

Once, I visited a Hindustani-Surinamese mosque during Ramadan (which is mainly frequented by Hindustani-Surinamese men, Pakistani men and West-African men) with my best friend with the intention of participating in yet another Ramadan ritual called itikaf. Itikaf is performed during the last ten days of Ramadan, when we as Muslims believe the Quran was sent down to the Prophet for the first time. Muslims -mainly men- sometimes go to the mosque for hours or even days, to immerse themselves in prayer and worship.

My friend and I were planning to spend a few hours there, but were basically stopped by a Hindustani-Surinamese brother, who very patronizingly told us that in the mosque he regularly visited in Amsterdam-West, Muslim women would go home after salat al 3asr (the late midday prayer) and would not pray in the mosque during the evening.

In the same year, I wanted to visit that very same mosque for Eid. At the time, I had mainly visited Moroccan mosques, in which it was totally normal for women to visit the mosque for Eid.

When I went there, there were only two other women, an Afro-Surinamese sister and a West-African sister. The women’s space was very small, dirty and the loudspeaker did not work, so we could barely hear the sermon. When we exited the mosque, there were ofcourse many men outside, and when we walked passed a group of Pakistani men, they stared to talk exitedly in Urdu, and the few phrases in English they used were “women going to the mosque, women going to the mosque”.

There is a beautifull Moroccan mosque in Haarlem in which I had very good experiences with Taraweeh, Eid prayer and Friday Prayer. (I secretly called it the African mosque, since, next to Moroccan women, there were also lots of West and East-African women attending)

I remember at one time after Eid prayer, when we all kissed eachother and congratulated eachother with Eid, the West-African women coming to me first to congratulated me, and it was pure bliss.

I visited that mosque alone, with my best friend and with another friend, even though when I had learned Arabic, it turned out that the imam of that mosque did hold a misogynistic Friday sermon.

Because of the political and social upheaval following the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, for a few years, there were a lot of -mainly Morccan- organizations who hosted subsidized public iftars featuring lectures, debates, discussions and sometimes even concerts.

I remember that at some point there was a Ramadan Festival which featured the aforemented activities.

It was also possible for non-Muslims to eat in the homes of Muslims, which lead my then-best friend, a Moroccan activist who was divorced and faced scrutiny and exclusion because of that, to say that those very same people should first work on including women like her and other fellow Muslims who did not fit the ideal standard.

This same friend and I also developed our own rituals of visiting Eid prayers together, than having a Moroccan breakfast, watching movies and she would prepare a delicious meal, which I sometimes prepare to this day, even though we are not on speaking terms amymore.

Al Nisa, a progressive organization of Dutch-speaking Muslim women, also hosted public iftars.

For me, these public iftars were very important, because as a single, non-hijabi, Afro-Surinamese black female convert I often felt, and/or was made to feel, that I didn’t belong in mainstream Muslim spaces.

Another fond memory of Ramadan was that with Eid, a Moroccan cultural organization called Marmoucha would organize big Moroccan disco-parties to celebrate Eid, which featured live music from artists from Morocco and DJ’s.

I recall visiting a lecture in Dutch in a Moroccan mosque, which was organized by a very conservative white female convert and back in the day, in 2005, lectures in Dutch were just starting to begin in mosques, so that was something special then.

She kind of lectured us about the fact that after Ramadan, many Muslims let go of certain rituals we do practice in Ramadan, like fajr prayer, for instance.

On the very same day of the lecture, I went to the aforemented disco party and danced for hours.

This shows that there are also different worlds amongst Muslims and that the way we express and celebrate our faith can be very different.

Another tradition that has really caught on is that many young Muslims go to the cinema on the second day of Eid, since tradition has it that we visit our family on the first day of Eid.

Some other things I used to do was to buy Moroccan cookies filled with almond paste at a well-known Moroccan baker at the Javastraat, keep a few and share the rest with friends and family.

Since 2009, due to health issues, my relationship with Ramadan changed radically.

I couldn’t and still can’t fast, and going for taraweeh prayers also became virtually impossible, so I felt as if Ramadan was taken away from me, something that took a while to accept.

However, in 2013, by the grace of God, I discovered a lovely Javanese-Surinamese mosque and I would go there regularly for Friday Prayers and for Eid prayers. After the Eid-Prayer and different lectures of the imams and the board, we would eat a delicious Surinamese meal together.

Now, because of covid, many of the rituals I mentioned cannot be performed in real life, but through the blessing of technology rituals like iftar, taraweeh and jumu3a can happen online.

So I would like to end this lecture by thanking you all for letting me share a part of my Ramadan-journey and I hope the blessings of this month will touch & benefit you all.