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Holding on to Faith: Muslims and the Search for a Conducive Environment

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I observed Ramadan for the first time outside my home country, Nigeria, in 2015. It was in Johannesburg, South Africa when I was a student at the African Leadership Academy. Remembering it now – notwithstanding the school’s attempt to create a conducive environment – it was a bit gloomy because I didn’t have a Muslim community around me; I didn’t have a Mosque to go to for night prayers, I was not as actively involved in charitable projects as I would have been had I been at home and I was not reading the Qur’an as often as I should because I had exams and was working towards several deadlines.

The next two years were even more glum. I was in Paris as a student at the American University of Paris, taking classes and working towards even more hectic deadlines. Again, with no Muslim community to share my struggles with and to help keep me accountable during Ramadan. I was also struggling to find a Muslim community around me – having to travel to the grand mosque and paying costly taxi cabs back home. It was much harder that it was in Johannesburg. Having gone through my own battles, I wanted to speak to Muslims in non-Muslims communities, as well as converts, about their own and the advice to others in similar situations.

Jimmy, a 26-year-old American Muslim man, did not have much trouble finding a Muslim community. There are two mosques around him and “everyone there embraced me with open arms.” Because of the support he has gotten from the Muslim community, as well as the fact that “Allah truly listens to prayers”, he finds practicing his faith easy.

Jimmy said he converted to Islam the day Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, a Spanish football club. He had prayed to his then-god for the footballer to stay with the club but he left anyway. That event taught him that his god “is a false one” and he decided to find the true one. His Muslim friend, who was a fan of the Barcelona football club, had prayed for Ronaldo’s departure and his prayer was answered. “That led me to Islam,” he told NewsWireNGR.

The idea that Allah listens to prayers is even more emphasized on during this holy month.“Ramadan to me is a month of purity, healing and starting afresh,” Khadijah Mohammad, a 20-year-old Nigerian young woman living in Oxford, told NewsWireNGR. For her, it is a holy month where a servant feels connected to their Lord.

Khadijah opened up about spending Ramadan in a non-Muslim community and how different it is from Ramadan back home. It is challenging, she says; in terms of difference in Iftar (breaking fast) times, she fasts for about 15 hours in Oxford, while Nigerians are fasting for shorter. In addition, she feels isolated, as she is surrounded by people from diverse beliefs, cultures, ethics and spiritual morals than hers. Back home, she describes a uniformity in these principles. “This, I believe, always brought a sense of extreme motivation to be at your best in the holy month of Ramadan,” she adds.

In Nigeria, she is surrounded by friends, family and there are mosques around to attend lectures and sermons about the deen; in Oxford, she has not yet found such a community, except for when she visits her Nigerian friends. One of her biggest struggles is not hearing the adhan (call to prayer) and hence, not knowing when to have iftar and perform her five daily prayers. She describes it as “dispiriting”. Another is the indifference in the world around her – seeing people eating at her favourite restaurant makes crave and “all I can think about is how the bubble tea in the little girl’s hand must be refreshing.”

Khadijah is living abroad as a second-year student of Economic Politics and International Relations at Oxford Brookes University. When asked about balancing school and Ramadan, she told NewsWireNGR that it’s quite challenging. “On one hand, I have a 2000-word essay to submit and on the other hand, I have to start preparing iftar at 5pm. I generally work better at night so by the time I have my iftar, I am too full and somewhat “restless” to get to work.” She strongly believes that spirituality is essential to the deen so when these small struggles arise, she feels her spirituality is “bruised” to an extent.

Khadijah talks about the struggle to find a Muslim community in Oxford and the disappointment in not succeeding. She is constantly seeking knowledge about Islam and tries to learn as much about the religion as possible though YouTube, Muslim channels like Yaqeen Institute. The lack of a conducive religious environment in Oxford led her and her friends to start a social platform called ‘Unite The Ummah (UTU)’, which, as the name suggests, aims to unite and educate Muslims from all over the world.

As the virtual events manager, Khadijah says: “I host live events with people that have knowledge of the deen, so they can enlighten us and address topics and questions about the deen. From a personal perspective, this has inspired me to be better; I have been inspired by the speakers I have interviewed.” As a team, UTU has executed charitable projects and successful interviews with scholars via Instagram live.

When asked if she has any advice for Muslims observing Ramadan in non-Muslim communities, Khadijah said: “have faith and do not give up.” She counsels that if ever one finds him/herself slipping or spending less time religiously, they should take a deep breath and remember that Allah is most merciful. They should forgive themselves and put in an effort to be the best possible version of themselves.

It’s not always easy to find conducive environments to practice Islam but the mere thought that you are not alone is refreshing in ways we can’t even begin to explain. Whether you are struggling to find a Muslim “home” in a foreign land, or you are navigating life as a new Muslim during the holy month, the most important thing to remember is to hold on to your faith. Stay true to your religion, stay motivated and take one extra step towards becoming better every day.

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