Life as a Muslim

An address given in St Mark’s by SAFEENA RASHID on 19 July 2015.

Thank you for inviting me to speak. It is an honour to be standing in front of you addressing you today. I will be talking about Ramadan, largely from a spiritual perspective. Then I will talk about Eid, and I will finish by speaking more generally about being a Muslim in this country. First, a brief preamble. I was born and brought up in Scotland, and I have been a Muslim all my life, so everything that I do in this country, everything I do in this city is very normal to me.

  • It is normal for me to testify that there is only one God and that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is the last messenger
  • It is normal for me to pray five times a day
  • It is normal for me to read the Quran
  • It is normal for me to give charity, and it is very normal for me to fast during daylight hours for one month every year.

I am aware that my way of living is not normal to everyone else around me though. Indeed people around me might be curious about how I live my life, or why I choose to do certain things that I choose to do. Some people might even be scared of it, because there’s a natural fear of the unknown. This is why opportunities like this, where I get to explain certain aspects of Islam, are priceless for me. I would much rather a curious person, or a scared person come up to me, and ask me questions, rather than remain in that state of curiosity or fear forever.
With this in mind, if at any point you have any questions about anything, then I will be more than happy to answer them, if I can.

Ramadan

Moving on to speaking about Ramadan. Ramadan is the name of the Islamic month in which Muslims fast. The physical aspect of fasting involves refraining from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. Much of what we do in life is driven by the desire for these three things. Forcing ourselves to refrain from these physical acts is one way of making us realise that we should be, and can be, in control of our desires, rather than our desires being in control of us. Controlling desires, remaining in full control of the senses, is an important discipline for the Muslim.

This year (2015) that discipline had to be exercised for particularly long days. Regardless of the long days, when you speak to Muslims in the run up to Ramadan, a lot of them will be looking forward to it. When you speak to Muslims after Ramadan, a lot of them will be missing it.
Why on earth would you look forward to starving yourself during the day? Why on earth would you look forward to not quenching your thirst in the summer with an ice cold drink? Why on earth would you look forward to depriving yourself of pleasures in life which you would normally take for granted?

The simple answer is that fasting is so much more than a mere physical act. It has a wider spiritual dimension, especially during the month of Ramadan. Many people ask me how I manage to refrain from eating or drinking for these long hours. I know that if it was just a physical act, for example, if I was just fasting to lose weight, then I would not manage it. When I fast as an act of worship though, it is not the physical benefits I am craving but the spiritual benefits.

Spiritually, I want to get closer to the Lord who is not only my Lord, but the Lord of the entire universe. I fast in the hope of achieving God’s mercy, in the hope of gaining lots of rewards for the deeds that I do, and ultimately in the hope that God gives me paradise and saves me from hellfire.

I am unable to enumerate the spiritual benefits, but I will briefly touch on three.
Firstly, Ramadan is a month in which God promises us far more rewards for our good deeds than are available at any other time of year. This is one of the reasons why you will see Muslims falling over themselves during this month to do lots of extra good deeds, for example, giving more in charity, or spending longer at night praying. The act of fasting in itself is a good deed, and the exciting thing about this is that God has not actually told us how much reward we will get for it. This is because the reward is probably far beyond anything that we could comprehend.

Secondly, it is a month in which God chains the devil up. The devil is mankind’s clearest and oldest enemy. He whispers in our ears in an attempt to coax us into doing bad deeds, in an attempt to take us away from our Lord. If we want to do something bad, the devil will make it very appealing for us, and he will also facilitate ease in doing it. If we try to do something good, the devil will put obstacles in our way to make it more difficult. During the month of Ramadan this opportunity is taken away from him. When God chains the devil up for this month, it leaves us free to do as many good deeds as we want, without as many obstacles. We also try our hardest to stay away from doing bad things, in an attempt to get closer to God. Effectively, Ramadan is a training course in which we prepare ourselves to successfully do battle with the devil for the other eleven months of the year.

Finally, the entire month is one in which the chances of our prayers being accepted increases. This is why in the run up to this month, I try to think very carefully about exactly what I want to ask of God, remembering that when I am supplicating, I am supplicating to the One who is capable of giving me whatever I seek. When I pray to God, I have that certainty in my heart that God is all capable, and that God will accept my prayers. Over the years, I have actually seen manifestation of that acceptance, and I am confident that this year will be no different.

Eid

I will now speak about the festival of Eid.

We work very hard during the month of Ramadan. We deprive ourselves of things we normally take for granted, and we make the effort to up the level of good deeds, both in terms of quality and quantity. While ultimately we seek reward in the form of paradise, God rewards us in this life by giving us a celebration at the end of the month. That celebration is called Eid al Fitr. This is a celebration of breaking the fast. We are not rejoicing that Ramadan has come to an end, but we are congratulating ourselves on having completed the month. We are also thanking God for having allowed us to complete the month.

On this day, a billion Muslims around the world will be celebrating Eid. The beautiful thing about Islam is that it is a way of life which, within certain remits, accommodates many different cultures. Therefore, it does not matter what country I am in, what language I speak, what type of food I eat, what kinds of clothes I wear, I can still celebrate Eid. There will be certain ways of celebrating that will be universal across all cultures. For example, there will be a special prayer on the morning of Eid, we will make the effort to wear nice clothes, we will visit family and friends, and there will certainly be a lot of food eaten. How this is done will vary from culture to culture.

An effort is also made to make Eid special for children. Many children are so excited about Ramadan, that they will try to fast. Though fasting is not an obligation on them, they are enthusiastic about it, and want to join in with everyone else. Regardless of whether or not they fast, children are an important part of the celebrations.

Being a Muslim in this country

For me in this country, Eid is a nice experience. I head to the mosque, to pray the special Eid prayer in the morning, in my best clothes. I love going to the mosque where I know I will bump into family and friends. Regularly the mosques will put on activities for children in celebration of Eid. The rest of the day involves a lot of food consumption. I keep telling myself my diet will start tomorrow!

For the rest of the year, in general being a Muslim in this country is a positive experience. Of course I have had the occasional bad experience of racism, and unfortunately incidents of Islamophobia are also becoming more frequent. However, I know that such incidents are not representative of the general population.

I was once getting on a bus at a bus terminus. Given that I wear a headscarf, I am very visibly a Muslim. The bus driver asked me if I would prefer to live in a Muslim country. My response was no. As I was born and brought up here, I know no different to living here. When I have been abroad, to Pakistan for example, I miss home and am itching to come back after a couple of weeks away.

I am very grateful for the fact that I live in a country where I am pretty much free to live the way of life that I want. Although, I was born a Muslim, I have actively chosen to practice Islam. For me, other than adhering to what is outlined by God in the Quran, and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), there is no other way to get close to God. There is no better way for me to worship God than the way He sets out Himself. I sincerely believe that being in Scotland has facilitated this freedom for me to choose to practice Islam, and it has facilitated the freedom for me to learn how to practice Islam.

On a day-to-day basis, my faith only has a positive effect on my life. It has not hindered me in any way. I went to a state school in this country. I was the only Muslim in my year, but that did not stop me getting the same opportunities as everyone else. I went to university in this country where the resources open to everyone were naturally also open to me. I work for the government in this country, and I have no issues wearing the clothes that I need to wear or praying at the times that I need to pray. I live in the knowledge that if I respect others, others will respect me. I live in the knowledge that I am Scottish. Ultimately I live in the knowledge that I am Muslim.

Copyright Safeena Rashid
used by permission
given in St Mark’s on 19 July 2015

Safeena Rashid ended her address by inviting members of the congregation to visit The Edinburgh Central Mosque during the Edinburgh Festival.