When I lived in Bangladesh, there was a very homogenous aspect to the way in which Islam was practised by the general Muslim community. My Muslim community shared the same skin colour as me, we shared the same ways of praying, we ate the same foods for iftaar no matter where in the city we went, and we were taught that fasting, charity and prayer had to be done in a very particular way. But having lived in Canada for the past 30 years has expanded my understanding of Islam, race, culture and the Ummah in very profound ways.
In North America today, Ramadan dinner tables are sure to include staple Arab and Pakistani dishes, including, but not limited to Shwarma's, dates, deep fried breaded eggplant, fried chickpeas, pyajus, pakoras and potatoes, along with lemonade. But many Muslim Canadians will also break their fast with tortillas, pasta, halal burgers, gyros, pad Thai, steak and yes, even Sushi. Islam in North America is rapidly expanding. It is the fastest-growing religion in the nation, and the second most practiced faith in over twenty different US states. The Daily National Post of Canada proclaimed that 'a new report called the future of the global Muslim population estimates that by 2030 there will be about 2.7 million Muslims living in Canada, and they will make up approximately 6.6 per cent of the population.'
This increasingly heightened Muslim diversity in Canada has reshaped Ramadan and Eid into a new sort of multicultural Canadian tradition. This Muslim Canadian multiculturalism is both trans-cultural and multi racial in dimension, and these dimensions come with many challenges. I wish to share some of the things that I have learned about Ramadan and Eid during the last 33 years of my time celebrating it in Canada.
Let me premise by saying that I am grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate Islam in such a complex and beautiful context. The Eid jammat in Toronto is a rainbow of people from Lebanon, Bosnia, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Yemen, Albania, Bangladesh, India and more. There is an ethnic and racial diversity amongst Muslims here that is unparalleled to most other cities in the world. There is also greater gender representation within visible mosque culture here. For example, in Toronto, an increasing number of women attend regular Jummah prayers and organize and facilitate community programs and events at their local mosque - something I have rarely witnessed in Bangladesh's mosque culture, where mosques are mostly hubs for men. Here in Toronto, I have the daily opportunity to pray, learn from and befriend refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon and Syria in a single Jummah prayer. I can meet immigrants from virtually every corner of the Islamic world during Taraweh prayers. I can organize events aside wealthy and working class Muslim communities in the same space.
Forty years ago, Muslim children in Canada would be jealous that their Christian Canadian counterparts would get to celebrate Christmas, making Eid seems like the inferior little sister of a much more glamorous holiday. The malls, the media, schools and local neighbourhoods would create an air of Christmas festivity by decorating lights all over the city, singing carols on the streets, putting up exuberant Christmas trees in public spaces and widely preaching about the importance of the holiday in classrooms and offices alike. But today, I am grateful to the generations of immigrants who settled in Canada before me and put in the effort to create an Eid that would more closely resemble the Eids that many immigrant communities enjoyed in their home countries, a celebration equally festive to that of Christmas or any other holiday for that matter.
Forty years ago, Eid in Canada was a small, hardly-heard-of religious holiday. Members of the Muslim community could pray at a mosque, and then gather with friends and family for home cooked sweets, gift exchanges and greetings in their homes. These days, Eid has become an extremely popular and well known mainstream holiday in Canada. New York City even recognizes it as a public government-sanctioned holiday as of this year. In Toronto, children in all schools now learn about Eid as one of the world's most celebrated occasions. Mainstream Canadian malls even offer Eid sales or special Eid gift wrappings, and an increasing number of restaurants across the city, both halal and not, offer 'iftaar specials' for families on a daily basis. Muslims put up Eid lights, and multiple community centres, shops and large convention centres host mehdi nights and chand raat, the night before Eid, where Eid clothing goes on sale, where people can have their hands painted with henna, their eye brows threaded and matching bracelets and bindis purchased while eating barbequed corn and paan all night long on the open crowded streets. Hundreds of mosques, large scale convention centres and banquet halls offer Eid Melas on Eid Day. Hundreds of mosques offer late night taraweh prayers throughout the month of Ramadan, creating a greater depth in Islamic consciousness in future generations.
All of this Islamic diversity in Canada has also challenged me to think about issues related to race and class in a way that I had not deeply contemplated while living as a Muslim in Bangladesh. For example, Muslim scholars in Canada at local conferences discuss what charity and zakat actually mean in Islam. Having attended several workshops at the 'Reviving Your Islamic Spirit' conference, a gathering of over 20, 000 Muslims in Toronto each year who discuss intellectual Islamic topics as they relate to our shifting Muslim community, I have learned to question what charity means during Ramadan in a very fundamental way. For Muslims who want to create a socially just world, it's time to rethink the way in which Muslims relate to 'the poor' during Ramadan.
We are told that empathizing with the poor is an important aspect of fasting. As the story goes, Muslims experience (if only for a few hours) what millions of underfed people around the world go through. Those who are unable to fast are instead supposed to feed poor people, and Muslims are encouraged to give more charity during the holy month. However, as activist researcher Noaman Ali points out, this empathy story 'of sympathizing and being charitable to the poor' is directed at a middle-class audience; assumed to be the typical, average kind of Muslim. The poor may exist, but they are separate from the rest of 'us,' and if they do form part of the Muslim community, it's through this condescending relationship of charity. People are encouraged to give to the poor, but not to ask why they are poor in the first place. How can we truly break out of the cycle of self-absorption and move toward a more just society (as Ramadan instructs us to do) if we separate ourselves from the underprivileged? If we accept that we are different or separate from the 'the poor' in a world where Muslims are supposed to be born equal, and die equal in the eyes of God, how does this maintain the Islamic spirit of not just charity but of equality? The fact is the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world are actually 'the poor.' We can simply look at Bangladesh as an example - the vast majority of people in Bangladesh live dangerously below the poverty line. Growing up in Bangladesh, year after year, I saw middle class and wealthy Muslims donate hundreds of cheap cotton sarees to poor villagers, or distribute sweaters to street children, or donate a meal to the homeless in the spirit of Ramadan - but these are all one time, short term, temporary solutions to the growing epidemic of poverty. Couldn't a deeper form of empathy for the underprivileged involve struggling against the conditions that produce poverty in the first place?
As Naoman Ali says, it's time for Muslims to use Ramadan to intensify the struggle for human liberation, not just from temptations of the flesh, but also from the temptations of privilege, indulgence, exploitation and class hierarchy. I would never have expanded my vision of Zakat to understand charity in this way had I not been exposed to this very diverse Muslim diaspora in Toronto.
Similarly, living in Canada has also pushed me to think about race and ethnicity in Islam in a more diverse and thoughtful way. In Bangladesh, my fellow Muslims were mostly Bangladeshis. But what about the struggles of Muslims around the world who have completely different struggles than us? For example, when I attend Jummah prayers, and I happen to pray next to a Somalian family that day, it pushes me to wonder what the history of Muslim Somali's were in North America. Recently I read an article by Khaled Beydoun, a law professor in Orlando, Florida. He points out that the practice of Islam is not at all a new practice in North America. Here I am thinking that the practice has developed largely over the last 40 years, but Professor Beydoun points out that the opening chapters of Muslim American history was actually written by enslaved African Muslims. According to him, 'Social scientists estimate that 15 to 30 per cent, or, as many as 600,000 to 1.2 million slaves in antebellum America were Muslims. Forty-six percent of the slaves in the antebellum South were kidnapped from Africa's western regions, which boasted 'significant numbers of Muslims?These enslaved Muslims strove to meet the demands of their faith, most notably the Ramadan fast, prayers, and community meals, in the face of comprehensive slave codes that linked religious activity to insubordination and rebellion.
Living in a vast diaspora of Muslims certainly has its challenges. Which geographical calendar do we follow when celebrating Eid? How do we deal with the ongoing issue of Arab supremacy, lateral racism within Muslim communities, or issues of nationalism within certain mosques, and so forth. But these conflicts and complexities are rife with potential for building a much stronger, more mindful community of Muslims than I ever thought imaginable, and I wouldn't trade that in for the world. I am grateful to the Almighty for the ways in which my Muslim Canadian experience has expanded my views of Islam, Ramadan and Eid.
Poet, author and cultural activist Rummana Chowdhury writes from Toronto