The holy month of Ramadan will soon come to an end for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. To get a sense of why this period of spiritual reflection remains important, we spent the day with a young Islamic Australian and his family.
On a Friday exactly two weeks into Ramadan I spent a day with 20-year-old Mohamed Shihadeh and his family in the western Sydney suburb of Liverpool, to get a greater understanding of the traditions and practices observed during the holy month.
4:30 am: Mohamed wakes early and helps his mother prepare food for suhoor, the meal he and his parents will finish before 5:25am, when the sun moves over the horizon and begins to rise, and the fast begins.
For Mohamed the rigours of waking early while most of Sydney sleeps isn’t too arduous - he’s an early riser - but fasting can be. He has "already lost three kilos this Ramadan”.
5:00 am - Suhoor: The table is covered with an assortment of food, mostly prepared by Mohamed’s mother Sahar Shihadeh. Dried sage tea, hummus, tomatoes, cucumber, lebanese bread, ful medames (a slow-cooked concoction of dried broad beans, olive oil, cumin, garlic, lemon and other spices). To avoid a parched mouth for the next 12 hours the the meal is finished with Greek yogurt.
5:25 am: The tone of the broadcaster on the Voice of Islam radio station playing in the background changes slightly. He says, in Arabic, “it is time for the appointment with fajr,” a signal to stop eating and prepare for the morning prayer.
Wudu: After clearing the table Mohamed and his father, Imad Shihadeh, go to separate bathrooms to perform wudu, or ablution, a spiritual cleansing of the body prior to prayer. Mohamed turns on the tap and rinses both of his hands to the wrist three times; cups water into his nostrils and shoots it out three times; rinses his face three times; washes his arms to the elbow three times. He then performs masah, moving his wet hands through his hair and over his ears. Once he’s also washed both his feet he is done.
“It’s crazy, I’ve had to do it in pretty strange places, I’ve had to do it in the bathrooms at uni, even in a pub. I’ve had to do [wudu] on the side of the road with a bottle of water. Living in Australia, the facilities for prayer are not very extensive, they’re not everywhere.”
Morning prayer: Mohamed and his father attend the Islamic House Mosque in Edmondson Park and when they arrive this Friday an Egyptian Imam called Izat Rashad - who was trained in the art of Quranic recitation, or tajweed, at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo - is reciting a passage from the Quran. Hearing the Egyptian Qāriʾ - the title for those with tajweed certification - is affecting. His soaring voice, amplified through speakers on the inside and outside of the mosque, is genuinely overwhelming.
There are 60 to 70 men inside the mosque when we arrive. Some sit behind white horizontal lines on the floor, which span the room side to side. Some sit on chairs at the back of the hall, others sit around the edges of the room in ‘circles of knowledge’. It is a communal and relaxed space. Neighbours and friends greet each other and exchange formalities as Izat Rashad continues his recitation, which is orchestral, dramatic and soothing.
Fajr: Once the congregation has arrived, fajr begins. The man I’m sitting next to at the back of the mosque, Mustafa, ushers me to the front. Izat Rashad leads the prayer and his voice is the only noise heard for the next 10 minutes.
Afterwards a man laps the room, rubbing a musk-scented essential oil on everyone’s hands. Mohamed tells me he and his father jokingly call the man “hajj il musk”, or “the one who has travelled for the sake of giving musk”.
Sheikh Nabil, the local Imam, moves to where Rashad was sitting begins his Friday sermon, which is delivered in Arabic. I listen to a live translation by one of the locals, who mimics the Sheikh's intonation, flow and tone.
“There is no value to your beliefs without translation into deeds,” he says.
After the prayer, as people file out of the mosque into a fully risen sun, a man introduces himself to me. Farooq Portelli has a thick Australian accent, a curly grey beard and an unending smile.
He tells me about his life: his conversion from altar boy to devout Muslim; the day he proposed to his wife of 30 years after only knowing her for four hours. How after working in governmental and senior advisory roles for decades, he is happier than ever right now, living a life of asceticism and religious devotion.
Mohamed and Imad, as well as several others, join and form a circle. The conversation moves to scriptural points discussed in the Imam’s sermon and plans for the rest of the day.
12:00 pm - Jumu'ah: The mosque is a wholly different environment at noon. At least 300 people are there, packed both inside and outside to observe the jumu’ah, or Friday prayer.
The Friday preaching, khutbah, is given in Arabic, with a brief summary of the talk given afterwards in English.
“Prayer helps you to avoid sins ... prayer is a means to improving yourself.”"Many people fast but they only feel hunger or thirst, this is not what it is about.”“Giving zakat prevents you from becoming greedy.”
Once the sermon ends and the jumu’ah prayer begins, the mood of the mosque changes and all chatter stops.
When it's over people rush to their cars, mostly to get back to work. I find Sheikh Nabil and we retreat to his office. We talk about his sermon, the local community, then turn to the societal anxieties and stigmas that affect Australian Muslims, and whether the government has neglected to address them.
“Every government needs to keep the country under control and secure, we have no problem with that,” he said. “But there’s a lack of understanding about Islam from politicians, and it means that often they judge the whole community and the whole religion based on a few individuals.”
“We are sometimes treated like second class citizens. If someone does something wrong there is a judicial system, they can be prosecuted under the system.
“Why is this young generation being radicalised so easy? Because there is injustice. There is discrimination. There is unfairness. So young people become an easy target for groups that want to recruit and radicalise. The issues are systemic.”
5:00 pm - Maghrib: Before breaking fast Mohamed and his family perform the fourth prayer of the day, maghrib, in their house just after sunset.
The fast is broken by eating a date, as the Prophet Muhammad is said to have done. Spread across the table is mushroom potato bake, pickled lemons, cheese toast, chicken schnitzel, pickles, peas and corn, and a bean soup. After a 12-hour hiatus from eating, dinner is long and conversational.
Sahar says the fast is important not only for self-control but as part of broader approach to life during Ramadan.
"Fasting is not just to stop eating, it’s to stop talking about people, stop being bad, stop lying, stop swearing," she says.
“If I am fasting and I talk behind your back, I may as well go eat, I’m wasting my time. How you behave yourself during Ramadan should then stay with you for the year, help you be a better person.”
'The importance of self-discipline'
Mohamed says the self-discipline of his daily routine during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar is a grounding influence for him all year round.
“Unless you maintain some of the habits you develop during Ramadan, it is not really that useful,” he says.
But he believes it is important for Muslims to be flexible in how they approach their religious duties and understands people will approach it differently. A civil engineering student at the University of Western Sydney, Mohamed admits his philosophical approach to issues of spirituality and culture often reflect his rationalist, engineer’s mind.
“For a building to be resistant, like a religion, it needs to be rigid in points and flexible in others," Mohamed says.
“Sometimes I like to compare Islam to buildings. Buildings are designed to house people, to house business, to stay up during earthquakes, to hold up against different elements. Building an entire building out of one material, let’s say glass, it’s not a very smart idea. No one wants to live in that. Because if anything happens it’s not strong enough, it’s going to crack, it’s going to break, the smallest of rocks will hit it and it will shatter. But you can’t go to the other extreme and say, ‘let’s make this entire building out of just steel’. Steel’s very expensive, and it’s hard to make into the exact shapes you like, to make a whole building out of it is a very big challenge. It could not withstand an earthquake, it would just fall over as it’s a big heavy block. For a building to be resistant, like a religion, it needs to be rigid in points and flexible in others. So some parts, like the foundations, cannot be made of glass or rubber. But rubber bushes - like joints in the human body in contrast to bones - are supposed to be malleable and flexible.”
He says this analogy has a double meaning when applied to Islam. First, that it should be fine for there to be slight scholarly disagreements on the finer points of religious teachings while keeping the central tenets solid; second, that broader society, needs to be more accepting of other cultures and ways of living.
Mohamed is ardent about the importance of ethnic and religious diversity within communities, and the sharing of knowledge. He gives guest talks for the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy of Australia to Studies of Religion classes at various high schools in Sydney, including Orthodox Jewish school Moriah College and St Francis De Sales Regional College, which is Catholic.
As a young Muslim growing up in Western Sydney he says it’s not explicit racism that causes cultural divisions, but a lack of understanding, or a lazy ignorance of the basic principle of individuality.
“Being a Muslim has made me and many other second generation immigrants very aware of ourselves and of our conduct. We have to be our own biggest critics so we can disperse anything negative coming our way and deal with other critics. “The biggest problem, I feel, is that I can't just be a 20-year-old Australian Joe Blow when I make mistakes. I'm human. I get upset. I get emotional. I get road rage. Yet, the first thing some people may turn to blame is not the fact that I'm pretty much a teenager, growing up like the rest of humanity, but my mistakes are solely because I'm a 'Muslim Arab immigrant'.