Feeding the spirit
As Ramadan begins, one school in Birmingham prepares for its month of prayer and fasting
From next week, Shuhib Ahmed will be getting up early for school. Before 5am, to be precise. The 15-year-old will eat a small meal, or “suhoor”, and that will be the last thing to pass his lips for the next 14 hours.
It is a ritual that will be repeated across the UK throughout September, as Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims prepare for Ramadan, the holiest month of the year. Every healthy observant Muslim over the age of 12 is expected to fast from dawn to dusk throughout Ramadan – quite a challenge in September, with dawn at about 5am and sunset about 7pm.
But despite the obvious hardship of hunger and its inevitable irritability, Shuhib and his peers will not be exempt from normal activities at Park View School in Birmingham. They are expected to carry on with everyday life at the school where 99 per cent of pupils are Muslim.
“Fasting is a personal type of worship,” says Monzoor Hussein, assistant head at Park View and head of collective worship at the school. “It’s not about boasting about fasting or looking for recognition. The reward comes from God.”
Life may carry on as usual, but the Muslim Council of Britain recommends schools cater for pupils’ needs during Ramadan. This may be anything from providing more space for prayer time to avoiding internal exams.
At Park View, a number of activities and procedures kick into place before and during the month. This year, it started with a Ramadan assembly at the end of the summer term, which reminded pupils about the purpose of the month.
During that time, pupils keep a daily diary to record their good deeds, prayers and personal thoughts, and produce a Ramadan newsletter full of information, anecdotes and recipes circulated to the school community and parents. Every department runs special quizzes or competitions – some Ramadan-related, some not – to entertain, occupy and distract the pupils during their long fast. The lunch hour is reduced to 40 minutes so fasting pupils are not at a loose end.
There are also other logistical problems to consider. during a normal day, about 60 pupils may choose to file into Park View’s hall to informally pray at lunchtime. During Ramadan, there are some 540 pupils – 90 per cent of the school – and they all need to wash, perform “wudu”, in the specially designed male and female toilet areas, beforehand.
One of the school’s solutions is to recruit senior and more experienced pupils to help younger children perform their duties, handle the extra crowds, recite the Koran and play Islamic videos and songs in the hall. Shuhib, who is in Year 10 and fasts for the entire period, is one of the Ramadan helpers. “We make sure that the younger pupils are up-to-date with their planners and teach them the basic prayers,” he says.
“I started fasting for part of Ramadan when I was 11 and it’s easier now. I look forward to it – I like the activities, competitions and recitals, although PE can be hard. We usually don’t do strenuous exercise during Ramadan, so we don’t get dehydrated.”
Other pupils concur, but a successful Ramadan in schools doesn’t just happen – it requires good organisation and forethought, says Monzoor. “When I first came to the school 11 years ago, Ramadan was a time when pupil behaviour deteriorated because the pupils were irritable,” he says.
“But now we’ve introduced so many activities and competitions and a structure for the prayers, there’s a buzz around the school. We remind them about the purpose of Ramadan. The Prophet said seeking knowledge for one hour is better than praying for 70 years. Pupils take that on board and behaviour now improves during the month.”
It is also a time of celebration, says Lindsey Clark, the headteacher, who describes herself as agnostic with humanist beliefs. “There’s a huge community spirit,” she says, referring to an evening meal or “iftar” held at the school during Ramadan, which is attended by the vast majority of pupils, parents and staff.
“It’s better than a parents’ evening,” she says. “Parents donate food, pupils perform songs and then everyone eats together. You can chat and share with parents and then talk through any issues. It’s a lovely atmosphere.”
It is also a team-bonding time for teachers. Muslim and non-Muslim teachers at Park View take it in turns to prepare their own iftar at their homes during Ramadan, and invite colleagues to join them.
But it’s not all plain sailing, concedes Lindsey. “You see the tiredness coming through as the month wears on, but you also see the pupils’ determination.”
Monzoor agrees: “We fast until 7pm, eat together and then gather in the mosque for prayers at 9pm. We don’t get home until about 11pm and then it’s up at 5am again. It can get difficult, and that’s why it’s important to keep in mind why you’re doing it and that you’re not alone.”
If anyone feels isolated at Park View during Ramadan, then surely it is the handful of non-Muslim pupils. But they insist that is not the case. Non-Muslims, plus those who choose not to fast for all or part of Ramadan, are still fully involved in all the activities and competitions, while some choose to sit in and observe their peers praying.
Many non-Muslim teachers show solidarity by fasting on the first day of Ramadan, while others judge Islamic competitions, such as the best call to prayer of the month.
“Everyone respects and recognises the importance of Ramadan at the school, no matter what their background,” says Lindsey, “but we also recognise that we live in Britain where most people are Christian, so we celebrate those festivals as well.
“At Christmas, we put up a Christmas tree, have a pantomime and send cards to each other. We also have a Christmas dinner with lovely halal turkey.”
FACTS BEHIND THE MONTH
– Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the holiest of the four holy months.
– Fasting at Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam: an act of worship of great spiritual, social and moral significance. It is a time of purification, praying, doing good deeds and spending time with family.
– This year, Ramadan straddles September (the exact date it starts is dependent on the first sighting of the new moon).
– As well as fasting, Muslims must abstain from chewing gum, using tobacco and sexual contact between dawn and sunset.
– Fasting is obligatory after puberty, although some younger children may fast for part of the month.
– Muslims are exempt from fasting if it will have a detrimental effect on their health or if they are taking medication.
GUIDANCE FOR SCHOOLS
– Create a written policy for the month (for example, should evening detentions be postponed?) and offer Ramadan awareness training for teachers.
– Recognise and celebrate the spirit and values of Ramadan throughout the school.
– Create a larger area for daily prayers.
– Avoid internal examinations during the month.
– Supervise fasting pupils during lunchtime and offer alternative, peaceful activities.
– Avoid sex and relationship education – Muslims are expected to avoid sexual thoughts or discourse during Ramadan.
– Consider the implication of swimming. Although it’s an acceptable activity, pupils may not want to participate in case they accidentally swallow water.
– Ensure PE lessons are not too strenuous, to avoid dehydration.
– If possible, do not hold parents’ evenings during Ramadan. Attendance may be poor as families prepare to break their fast, or have to attend the mosque.
TEACHING AND FASTING
Foezul Ali, 30, is a business and economics teacher at Beal High School in Redbridge, Essex
“At first I couldn’t fast for the full 30 days of Ramadan when I was young, but slowly I got better at it. When I was 14 I remember we’d play hockey tournaments without water, but it contributed to mental toughness.
“Now I look forward to Ramadan and the opportunity to reflect on my life. I wake up early to have my breakfast before sunrise, before completing the early morning prayers. I’ll get to school at about 7am, do morning lessons and then be on lunchtime duty. It’s not always easy to be surrounded by food, but you prove that you have the ability to say no, make a choice and keep to it.
“Being a teacher during Ramadan is one of the most noble things a Muslim can do according to the Prophet, because imparting knowledge empowers and helps others to become better people. Ramadan is a fantastic snapshot of what it means to be a teacher.”