Shiban Akbar is the Chairperson of the Social Affairs Committee of MCB (The Muslim Council of Britain). She represents MCB on the NCWMP (The National Council for the Welfare of Muslim Prisoners).
'Ramadan' is the ninth month of the Islamic (Lunar) Calendar. It is a blessed month for Muslims for various reasons. The first revelation of The Qur'an (the Scripture for Muslims) was sent down in the month of Ramadan in AD 610. It is believed that 'Laylatul Qadr' or 'The Night of Power and Glory', the event in Islamic history which marks the first Qur'anic revelation falls on either of the odd number nights of the last ten days of Ramadan starting from 21st Ramadan. This night is also called 'Laylah Mubarakah' or the 'Blessed Night'.
Ramadan is the month of spiritual nourishment and enrichment, provided the opportunity is not missed to make good use of the blessings of the month. During this month the gates of Paradise are opened and the gates of Hell-Fire are closed; so there is less distraction from the material world and its destructive elements: indeed a Divine gift of mercy for humanity. Hence all Muslims are urged to consciously and actively seek repentance of Allah, the Lord and Sustainer of the Universe for all their sins and wrong-doing of which they are aware and others that they may not be aware of. It is the season to take stock of one's lived life and endeavour to be a better person.
Every effort therefore should be made to ensure that the prisoners are not deprived to take benefit of the blessings of this month. Appropriate resources and opportunity such as a congenial social environment should be provided to the Muslim prisoners so that they are encouraged to make good use of their time in plenty of congregational and individual prayers and receive Islamic moral guidance from Imams and invited scholars on the wisdom and practice of the month of Ramadan. They should be encouraged to focus on the neccessity of repentance; reflection, introspection that would help them to strive to becoming a better person. If possible, the ritual is best aided by study circles, Islamic educational videos or documentaries and group discussions facilitated by a learned Imam or a scholar.
'Sawm' or Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is both a physical act and a mental act of worship. It is an obligation for adult Muslims to observe the Fast. Together with physical abstinence for most part of the day, Muslims are urged to exercise self-control and strict self-discipline for spiritual benefit. Five things break the fast of a Muslim: lying, backbiting, slander, ungodly oaths and looking with passion. So added care needs to be taken towards proper conduct if fasting is to be observed in the true spirit. Other conditions would nullify the fast, such as injection used as a substitute for food or anything entering the body. If however, someone eats or drinks by mistake during the fasting s/he should continue to fast as such forgetful acts do not break it. If in doubt, the Prison Imams should be consulted to clarify such matters.
All Muslims who have reached the age of puberty are required to fast unless they are ill; frail due to very old age or health reasons; undergoing treatment; on medication; are travelling long distances; and pregnant and menstruating women and those who have just given birth or are breastfeeding. Able bodied adults are required to make up for the missed fasting at another time of the year which suits them, and preferably before the next Ramadan. There are other ways in which one can make up for not being able to fast. In Islamic Law it is a serious sin to break fast intentionally and without any valid reason. One is required to fast for two months for every single broken fast done intentionally. So Muslim prisoners who are in good health should get the necessary support to observe the Fast.
Ramadan is the season of giving up; developing self-restraint, exercising patience and demonstrating will-power! The proper practice of Ramadan is meant to provide a complete training and rehabilitation package on purging the mind and the body of the impurities and the inconsequential and debilitating material baggage gathered in the past year. In Islam purification is half of Faith. Fasting commences from dawn to sunset and during this time one must refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity. The drinking here does not refer to alcohol as it is forbidden in Islam at all times anyway, and the sexual activity is only permitted within a marital relationship. All these activities are permitted after sunset.
Before the fast begins each dawn a pre-dawn meal known as 'Suhur' is taken. One can eat until just before dawn and make the intention to fast. Some people choose to have breakfast menu such as cereal and toast and tea; some have fruits and a drink; some have a light cooked meal and some even have just a glass of milk or water. Whatever the prisoners choose to have or whatever is on offer please make sure that the food that needs to be served warm is not left cold from the previous evening. Following 'Suhur', prisoners should have the facility to do ablution or 'wudu' to prepare for the first prayer of the day known as 'Fajr' or 'Salat-ul-Fajr'. Some people prefer to read from The Qu'ran after Fajr and before they get ready for work.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness. 'Taharah' or overall personal cleanliness is a branch of Faith in Islam. Prisoners should be allowed and if required, taught and encouraged to keep their person including their private parts and their clothes and bed linen clean. Apart from 'wudu' or ablution in preparation for ritual prayers or to touch The Qur'an, prisoners should have the facility to shower every day.
'Iftaar' is the evening meal with which fasting Muslims break their fast at sunset. It is recommended to hasten to break fast at sunset and not to delay breaking it. So the evening meal should be provided on time and preferably served atleast five to seven minutes before the start of Iftaar. The normal practice is to do a small 'dua' or supplication at the 'Iftaar' table with the food laid out, praying to the Merciful Lord for His blessings and forgiveness and to accept our fast for Him.
'Iftaar' is an important meal for those who have been fasting all day. Commonly, attempt is made to grace the Iftaar table with a variety of food and drinks from dates, water, milk, juice/s, snacks, salad to a hot supper, and fruits and dessert, followed by tea or coffee. The menu obviously varies from one culture to another. Soon after the meal people pray the fourth of the five times prayer of the day known as 'Maghrib'. Some people choose to break their fast with a quick bite to eat with dates and water etc; then immediately pray 'Maghrib' which does not take more than 10 to 15 minutes; and then sit down to eating their meal in a relaxed manner.
Night-time is spent in additional prayers known as 'Tarawih', a highly recommended prayer. Worshippers congregate at the Mosques every evening during Ramadan to pray 'Tarawih' where sections of The Qur'an are recited with the aim of getting through the recitation of the entire Qur'an in the month in which it was revealed. If one is unable to pray 'Tarawih' in a congregation s/he should pray it at home in a group or on their own. A minimum of 8 and a maximum of 20 'rakahs' or units of prayer are read. So its unlike the five times prayer that takes much lesser time. 'Tarawih' prayers take time. It is held after the 'Esha' / 'Isha' prayers which is the last of the five set of prayers that is obligatory on Muslims as part of their five times a day worship-ritual. So for a Muslim, evening duties during Ramadan are extended far beyond their regular routine and takes a considerable amount of time to get through. The Prison authority need to be sensitive to the rigorous discipline of the month of Ramadan and exempt Muslim prisoners from undertaking any extra burden of work that would be physically tiring or add to their hardship.
Ramadan is not only a month of austerity but also a month of festivity; a neat balance between self-denial during its day-light hours and bounty bestowed on the fasting Muslim as darkness falls. If you visit a Muslim country in the month of Ramadan you will find it difficult to believe that most people go without food and drink for most part of the day. A typical scene at any time of day would be crowded streets and shops with festive decorations. The Festival of Eid which follows the month of Ramadan marks the end of the month-long fasting. Imagine the run up to Christmas. Ramadan celebrations and Eid shopping are just as busy and frantic! Restaurants and roadside cafes are busy preparing special food for the 'fasters'. Shops and traditional sweet shops have all kinds of attractive food on display. If you don't feast with your belly, you may feast with your eyes and nostrils. Ramadan is a month of generosity and giving and charity. People are especially hospitable to guests and have their relatives, friends, neighbours and work colleagues over for the evening feast on different days.
Prisoners both British and of other nationalities who are cut off from their natural habitat are very likely to feel demoralised when thinking of the life they have had to leave behind. To raise their morale and in keeping with the spirit of charity, generosity and hospitality that characterises the month of Ramadan it would be nice if some effort is made to treat the Prisoners with an improved diet and for the last ten days of the month with some delectable delicacies, if possible.
Please check with the office of the Muslim Advisor or with the Prison Imams for correct timings for Suhur, Iftaar and prayers or help in any matter. A timetable for Ramadan may also be obtained from any Mosque. You may phone MCB on 020 8432 0585 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org if you have further queries.
Wishing everyone 'Ramadan Kareem': Blessings and Bounty of Ramadan