The spirit of Ramadan: How Muslims keep rituals alive in the West
Al Mayadeen English interviewed Muslims in France, Canada, Sweden, Germany, and the US to understand better the struggles and challenges that come with maintaining spiritual traditions in non-Muslim majority countries.
After a two-year pandemic crippled social gatherings, which are an essential part of Ramadan traditions for many, the Muslim world is getting back in touch with its spiritual rituals that make the special time of year it always has been.
Al Mayadeen English interviewed Muslims practicing Ramadan in the West to ask them what it felt for them to practice the holy month after a life-changing two years and what parts of their rituals they are most in touch with as well as how the experience of practicing Ramadan may differ in Western nations compared to Arab or Asian ones with larger Muslim populations.
When speaking about Ramadan in the West, it is critical to note that differing attitudes towards the Islamic faith exist. In some countries, the level of assimilation by most Muslims is limited due to a less tolerant native population.
For our scope, we wanted to examine how Muslims in multiple countries around the globe preserve their traditions and what challenges they are faced with when Ramadan comes around.
In Canada, which holds a population of roughly 3.2% Muslim, attitudes towards foreigners and immigrants are generally one of the best in the world. Due to its multicultural nature, the country is a plethora of differing cultures, peoples, and religions. Al Mayadeen English spoke to Dana, 26, who described living in Canada and being a practicing Muslim as a “breeze.”
Dana was born in Canada and visits her parents’ home country of Lebanon often. She describes many traditions upheld by not only her family, but many Muslim families in hear area. Although she has experienced Ramadan in Lebanon, she says it is not the same in Canada. “In Lebanon, people do not subscribe to the same timetables and schedules as most businesses in Canada do. For me, that was a big difference I noticed. People open stores and restaurants after Iftar time, which is a lot of fun. In Canada, some Muslim businesses will open after Iftar to accommodate others, particularly during Suhoor, and that is a really positive thing here.”
Non-spiritual traditions include individual families keeping their traditions alive by ensuring that families eat together at the same time. Whereas outside of Ramadan busy schedules mean different times for the family to get together at the dinner table, in Ramadan many families have a rule turned into a tradition that all of their family members be home at the same time.
“In the West, the society is very economically driven, where most people will work 9-5 jobs with no exceptions; this can sometimes make fasting difficult, but many employers are usually happy to make exceptions for some Muslim employees and alter schedules just enough to ensure they are more comfortable. Of course, this is something that we really appreciate in a multicultural society.”
“My family’s guilty pleasure is to watch some soap operas that are released in the Middle East during Ramadan to keep people entertained while they are fasting for long hours."
Additionally, there is an exciting new concept: some individuals have been making Ramadan trees in the shape of a crescent for people to put in their homes. For children who always see Christmas trees in public places but never have them at home, this is a fun and unique way to make them feel like their faith also has fun attributes that can be personalized. Children enjoy decorating the trees and Muslim families will sometimes put their eid presents underneath them for kids to open on Eid.
"In my family, my father used to do the Quran reading at the mosque most days during Ramadan so when Covid happened, we developed a new tradition of my dad reading Quran at home and it was nice," she says.
"When I was a kid, it was always a tradition to get new clothes during Eid, and uncles and aunts would give money to all their nieces and nephews; it was a fun part of being a child."
Akiel, 26, is a resident of Dearborn Michigan, USA. The US holds roughly 3.45 million Muslims. Among them, roughly 9,995,212 reside in Michigan.
He describes Ramadan in the city as a great experience that brings the community together.
In 2018, Dearborn initiated a Suhoor festival. Suhoor is the morning meal eaten by Muslims before the sun has come up during Ramadan. The festival was delayed for two years due to Covid but has returned in 2022 and brings dozens of vendors to a Sears parking lot in a local mall.
Thousands of Muslims and non-muslims partake in the festival and get a chance to enjoy the food and atmosphere.
Akiel says the festival serves the purpose of building bridges in the community and along with local mosques, can be used as a platform to encourage the young to learn more about their faith while enjoying their time.
For the sunset meal, Akiel says he and his friends take turns hosting Iftar nights where numerous of their friends would gather and sometimes teenagers shadow teenagers. "I enjoy spiritual gatherings amongst the youth in our community and many of them take turns hosting Iftar nights."
When it comes to celebrating Eid in the west, “Eid has become very well known as the Muslim population grows in non-Muslim countries. Most of our non-Muslim coworkers will gladly swift shifts with us and or give us the proper time needed away from work in order to celebrate.”
For charity initiatives, the local Mosque has a charity box that stays put during the year and during Ramadan, the boxes are sent to Muslim countries that have economic crises like Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and others.
Individually, people will ensure that the local population is well taken care of and the less fortunate or unable to cook their own meal after breaking fast are invited to the mosque to have dinner daily as local restaurants donate food every day to the local mosques.
Ramadan is a time where we immensely appreciate what we have already, and Muslim organizations in the area collect money for those less fortunate within the community and internationally.
In Sweden, Hard-Line, a far-right Swedish group, has been entangled in violent clashes with police and protesters over insistence on burning Qurans.
The clashes have resulted in the injury of 26 police officers and 14 civilians.
Danish politician Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran in Linkping, Sweden, which has a large Muslim population.— GBN (@GBNfeed) April 15, 2022
A riot quickly broke out in a nearby neighbourhood. pic.twitter.com/CLAtmRREVR
Hard-Line - a right-wing, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam group headed by Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan - has been looking to muster support before the elections in September, but with some Islamophobic violence.
Read more: 2021 Roundup: The rise of the radical right
Sweden has a Muslim population of 8%, and Salwa who lives in Uppsala spoke about how she has adjusted after moving to Sweden a few years ago from Lebanon.
“In our home, my daughters participate in active Quran reading with books that have images for them to be interactive, and this is a good way to teach them Islamic knowledge and lessons in a fun and interactive manner.”
She tells Al Mayadeen English that her daughters, aged 5 and 7, enjoy decorating their home for Ramadan since they see Christmas decorations in almost all public places in Sweden during Christmas time. "They consider this their own fun way of celebrating the holy month, and we teach them that this is a Muslim spiritual holiday and remind them of what it means."
Salwa describes how she is selective about which religious holidays she allows her children to participate in. "There are many public holidays that I chose not to let my children partake in because I don't want them to have their identities confused. For example, we celebrate Christmas in Lebanon when we are there, and they get small present bags, but they are not given any religious teachings behind the tradition. I allow them to experience a small part of Christmas because it is the most well-known holiday probably around the world. Whereas I choose not to let them participate in Halloween or Easter egg hunts that are organized in their daycares as I fear this will just cause too much confusion."
"Sometimes I worry that my children will not subscribe to the same religious views that we teach them, and grow up to have no spiritual attachment to their religion. This makes our challenge a little harder as we have to work extra hard to properly teach our children the history behind our traditions and rituals and allow them to feel a level of attachment to these rituals and instill them in their identity."
Zeinab, a cosmetician from Germany who has 3 children, says that it can sometimes be challenging to keep the rituals alive.
In her household, Zeinab says she likes to emphasize the importance of charity in Ramadan. For charity and teaching children the importance of giving, Zeinab describes how she keeps a special box in the house decorated for Ramadan, and children are welcomed and encouraged to put spare change in the box. At the end of the month, the money collected by the children (and helped by adult contributions) gets sent to orphanages in their home country of Lebanon.
“Unfortunately, our only concern is that our children do not receive any religious teaching in their public schools, and that puts a great deal of pressure on parents to properly ensure the teachings and traditions are taught to our children.”
In France, this year is particularly tense. France has a population of roughly 8% Muslims, and this year, French elections are right around the corner.
Elections, take place with many candidates touting an all-time high of xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment.
According to the rector of the Paris mosque, an increase in anti-Islam rhetoric in the French presidential election campaign risks producing a "spiral of hatred," scapegoating law-abiding Muslims in a manner comparable to the speech against Jews in the 1930s.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate facing off with current President Emmanuel Macron, has voiced wanting a referendum on immigration and a ban on Muslim headscarves in public places.
With a majority of French Muslims having immigrant origins, it is not difficult to imagine that Ramadan practices may be less than comfortable this year.
Just this week, a video went viral of French police attacking two women wearing Hijab in Asnieres-Sur-Seine. The police officer in question claimed he had "authority to do this."
However, Al Mayadeen English spoke to Zeinab and Ridouane to ask them how they were still keeping their traditions alive amid the negative atmosphere.
Ridouane says that living away from Muslim countries can sometimes be confusing because there has to be much greater effort to understand the religion and become familiar with the rituals.
“However, it is also a blessing to live in such an environment for three reasons. First, we are surrounded by people who think very differently from us, so we learn a lot from them. Then, we can in return teach them a lot about the beauty of Islam and its traditions. Finally, when one is obliged to make a difficult effort to understand one's religion and even sometimes to apply it, then it only makes our worship more beautiful.”
Ridouane says that the preservation of the traditions is enabled by the presence of families that teach them, Islamic centers that allow the practice of our beliefs as a community, in addition to humanitarian associations such as WhoisHussain that benefit the most vulnerable and most deprived through donations and seeing that people are taken care of particularly in Ramadan.
When it comes to celebrating Eid in France, Ridouane says festivals and celebrations are not times of clashes but rather an opportunity to share discussions. He detailed how Muslims like himself educate themselves on Western celebrations to better understand fellow citizens and take advantage of Muslim holidays to share gifts with neighbors and invite them to take part in their traditions.
Ridouane says living in the West puts Muslims in a privileged situation compared to other less fortunate parts of the world.
“During the month of Ramadhan, for example, WhoisHussain France organizes, in partnership with a school, a collection of gift boxes. Each child prepares a gift box which he fills every day during the blessed month with useful objects, food, poems... In short, everything that can be useful to the people most in difficulty here in France or people living a difficult life on the street. Then the day before Eid, we will distribute all these gifts to the homeless and the most disadvantaged people," he stated.
Despite the tense atmosphere in France, Ridouane and Zeinab say they have concerns but not fears.
“I am not worried, I trust in our capacity to change even the worst situations into something better,” Ridouane stated.
"Although fasting is difficult in the West due to different customs, it does not make the experience negative, it makes it more challenging and therefore more spiritual. And if we have to put more effort, we grow even more as individuals from that experience. As the famous saying goes: The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory."
Zeinab describes that different cultures within the Muslim community in the country maintain their specific traditions as it relates to their country of origin. She describes Iftar organizations in the WhoisHussain organization from Thursday to Sunday. Quran is read and is followed by prayers and Iftar for the community.
“In some cultures, it has become customary for children to partake in decorating the home for Ramadan. Traditional Middle eastern décor includes lanterns, decorative multicolor lights, and placing Qurans around the home. The month is a time to teach children valuable lessons like praying and teachings from the Holy Quran in order for them to take moral lessons and keep them with them.”
She described that Eid celebrations are packed with people who come to pray the main prayer after breaking the fast, and members of the community will make raffles and distribute toys to children.
In regards to the upcoming elections, Zeinab says that “for now there is no fear, of course until the next president is announced. There is much controversy surrounding the hijab in France, and prayers in public are not a comfortable thing given the current atmosphere. However, we will wait and see what happens in the elections, and we will deal with how to respond once the time comes.”
What all the interviewees have in common is the ability to thrive in a society that is not native to their own ethnicity, while maintaining their proper rituals or attempting to do so.
With the Muslim population continuing to grow outside of Muslim-majority countries, one can only hope that the future is filled with shared knowledge, acceptance, and humanity for all.