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Ramadan: Cultivating Community in St Andrews

For the first time ever, glittering stars and moons illuminate London’s West End for the Islamic month of Ramadan. The installation, which features 30,000 sustainable lights, was led by the non-profit organisation ‘Ramadan Lights’ with the aim of sharing the magic of the festive Christmas lights with the Muslim community.

And even 467 miles away from the shimmering lights in Piccadilly Circus, here in St Andrews, the same welcoming glow of community can be found. I spoke with Freya, a second-year student studying Economics and Philosophy, who is the treasurer of St Andrews Muslim Student’s Association (STAMSA).

During the month of Ramadan, which started on March 23 and will end on April 21, Muslims fast during daylight hours: from sunrise until sunset. For Muslims across the globe, it is a month dedicated to gratitude, charity, spirituality and connecting with others. “I think a lot of people just from the outside looking in think that Ramadan is just about abstaining from food and water and then breaking your fast, but Ramadan is about a lot of things”, Freya tells me.

This year STAMSA is hosting iftar (breaking of the fast) every Monday, Thursday and Saturday in the Chaplaincy. Freya is volunteering to help out with these, a role that involves assisting in the kitchen and ensuring that everyone receives food — which on Mondays and Thursdays is provided by donors such as Maisha and Jahangir, but on Saturdays is completely volunteer-led.

Over 60 students attended STAMSA’s first iftar. On the menu was the option of either chicken or vegetable pilau followed by semolina pudding for dessert.

Upon reflecting on the environment in the kitchen, a smile spreads across Freya’s face. She explains to me that, “There was a lot of chaos on the first day”. Cooking is something that can be extremely stressful, never mind cooking for a large number of people waiting to eat at a certain time. Despite this, she says that, “Ultimately in the kitchen there is a lot of laughter.” “There’s chaos but there’s calm and there’s happiness, it’s a very beautiful environment to be in.”

When the sun sets, fasts are first broken with dates and water, this is followed by prayer and then the main meal is served. “What we achieve from this fast, especially together, is this sense of community”, Freya explains. And this extends beyond simply eating together: “Before and after iftars we pray together so it's not just one thing it's the culmination of the environment as a whole”.

Volunteering to provide food for others during Ramadan is also an opportunity to lend fellow students a helping hand. “Lightening the load off someone else is also very important”, Freya highlights to me. With the constant stress of university work, it can be difficult for students to balance fasting, meeting deadlines and also preparing meals. Moreover, with the increased cost of groceries, cooking good quality and filling meals can become expensive. Therefore, cooking for others who are fasting during Ramadan is not only an enjoyable and rewarding experience for volunteers but can provide much needed help to fellow students.

Furthermore, at a university where the majority of students are from outside of Scotland (either from abroad or from the other parts of the UK), for many students, going home for the weekend to enjoy a home-cooked iftar, is not an option. Freya expands on the role that STAMSA plays here: “For me growing up back home Ramadan was about family, spending time together, joining in and praying together, I think that's what we are trying to replicate at STAMSA. That sense of community, love for each other and belonging.”

She starts: “We are proud of ourselves…”, but pauses, and rethinks her sentence, “we are grateful to God for giving us this environment and giving us this opportunity”. At its core Ramadan is about being thankful and grateful for everything that you have — perhaps an element of the month that each of us could apply in our own lives regardless of what faith we follow.

Finally, I ask Freya what the most rewarding part of being a volunteer is. Initially she replies that “every day is very different”, but then says, “when people come to us after (iftar) and say, ‘this reminds me of home’”.

Illustration: Lauren White

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