Over 3000 Muslim athletes competed in the Olympics earlier this summer and at the same time it was Ramadan. Like thousands of my constituents in Leicester, many of those athletes will have observed the fast.
With this in mind this year I wanted to make an effort to appreciate Ramadan on a much deeper and indeed personal level. I wanted to get a direct sense of what Muslims physically and mentally go through in denying themselves food and drink from sunrise to sunset. But I also wanted to understand further the spiritual side of Islam. So this year I decided to fast myself, although only for day.
Before deciding to fast I honestly thought long and hard about whether the gesture from a white politician of a Christian background would be considered patronising or as stunt and indeed some have accused me of that. But I embarked on this challenge from a genuine sense of respect for Islam, and a curiosity to understand more fully something which is so important to so many people across Leicester.
My day started early at around 2.30am, I wasn't sure what to expect so thought best to stock up on a healthy breakfast of porridge with berries and a large fruit smoothie.
Arriving at the mosque at 3am I was struck by the sheer beauty of the building inside and by the buzz as worshippers sat on the floor at the front tucking into a breakfast of toast and cornflakes. Perhaps I was expecting a quietness like a retreat but there was a real camaraderie as everyone greeted one another and enjoyed suhoor together. Feeling encouraged I had my second breakfast of the day, and heeding advice I had received minutes earlier on twitter drank as much water as I possibly could.
At around 3.30 the mosque was now full and the imam began the prayers, I sat at the back watching and thinking how remarkable it was such numbers were present including so many young people in the mosque this early in the morning. There was a real community spirit and a sense that what was happening was very special and important. As prayers ended and I left, I felt grateful I had enjoyed the privilege of witnessing these prayers. It had made getting up so early in the morning worth it, though I was still determined to go back to bed even if only for a few hours.
Later my day followed the usual pattern of a constituency MP - going to the office dealing with correspondence, meeting constituents, reacting to news that unemployment had increased again. But this time I couldn't stop thinking about coffee and was beginning to feel hunger cramps in my stomach.
Realising I wouldn't be able to cope simply sitting in my office all day, I took more advice from twitter and decided to keep busy by going out and about in the constituency.
First stop was the Jassat family. The daughter Farah has already blogged about it here. This family explained to me how important Ramadan is to both family life and community life. Farah told me that between breakfast and lunch she usually feels hungry but in Ramadan the spiritual experience gives her strength and she feels no hunger. It occurred to me that I too was no longer feeling hungry either, was I beginning to experience something more spiritual as well?
However, although I might have defeated the hunger cramps my head was starting to pound, "am I allowed nurofen I texted a muslim friend?" apparently not came the unsurprising reply.
By five I was feeling tired and while fielding questions on a local community radio station on the outrageous and atrocious sectarian violence towards the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, I worried I was becoming less and less coherent. Finding it difficult to concentrate I wondered how Muslim students would cope in a year or two when Ramadan coincides with exam time.
Thinking about how I would have been as a teenager at Ramadan I decided to meet some young people and ask of their experiences of fasting. It soon was obvious that these young men and women were like most other teenagers, chatting about the Olympics, football, television, music and so on. But it was also clear how important their religion is to them. They told me they enjoyed fasting and that being a Muslim was part of their identity. Many had been involved in extensive charity work throughout Ramadan and they were all driven by a desire to help those much less fortunate than themselves. I was impressed.
Later that evening I was due back at the Mosque at about 8.30pm for the breaking of the fast before the iftar meal.
In the mosque sitting with others, waiting to break fast I felt I was genuinely part of something quite extraordinary. It was certainly a time for reflection and when we all together broke the fast with a date it was an emotional moment. Not because I was finally eating, but because I genuinely felt a sense of solidarity and community doing something in the knowledge that thousands of others were taking part in the exact same ceremony.
I finished the evening at the neighbouring church for an inter-faith iftar meal where all of Leicester's faith groups were represented. It had been a long tough day but equally a worthwhile and moving day. Especially as I had been bowled over by the kindness and support I had received throughout the day from people of all backgrounds. That evening I felt even prouder than usual to represent such a wonderfully diverse constituency and city.
It was appropriate to finish the day at an interfaith iftar because through my own small experience of Ramadan, I saw that Islam shares the same guiding principles as many other faiths. On a very basic level, using the discipline of abstinence as a way of appreciating what you, and your loved ones, are fortunate enough to enjoy while allowing you to empathise with those who have very little. But more than that, it is about a shared experience, about family, friends and community. For example, when I was invited to break fast with others at the Mosque, I was offered friendship as well as food.
Islam is a religion, sadly often much misunderstood in the west and although my own experience was for just one day, I saw a religion which took pride in extending kindness, peace and understanding to those within the religion and those from outside.
And next year, I'm already looking forward to doing it again.
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