‘His Favourite Month’ by Jamal Orme

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From the Summer Ramadan 2011 issue of the IWA Magazine. This featured alongside some great articles about personal experiences of Ramadan which can be found at the IWA Magazine WordPress site: http://iwamagazine.wordpress.com/article-buzz/
 

His Favourite Month – Jamal Orme

I know a brother who once told me, with the same longing with which you might remember one beloved, that Ramadan was his favourite month. I was negotiating my way through a third Ramadan at the time. I smiled politely at his apparent insanity, considering that in all likelihood this was piety in a guise I was not yet fit to recognise. We had met the previous year – also in Ramadan.

The true wisdom of the month is beyond the scope of my understanding, but every year as I cross its path, I appreciate one attribute more than any other: if one is willing to seize it, so Ramadan is, in turn, a safety net like no other. The faltering Muslim stumbles, but as he falls he reaches out for Ramadan and Ramadan catches him, nurturing and nourishing him within that safe enclosure.

Thus it resonates with me, even in my ignorance, that observing the fast of Ramadan should constitute one of the pillars of this deen; meanwhile, my recurrent tribulations are entirely the result of my inability to do justice to this blessed month of opportunity.

I had served my first year of Islam as a kind of correspondence course, fulfilling duties imperfectly and in isolation. The mosque, it seemed to me then, was not a place for one with my complexion and complexities: whiter than white in one sense, and unhappily distant from such purity in another. Nevertheless, the first week of Ramadan that year coincided with a school holiday and I, as a teacher, found myself in my classroom, tinkering with displays and the like, when the time came for the noon prayer. Though I had only visited it once, I was well aware that the nearest mosque was a half-hour’s walk away, and to my surprise it was at that moment I felt Ramadan’s urge compelling me to offer my salah at the masjid.

Had I not been somewhat preoccupied with doomsday forecasts of my reception upon arrival, I may have given more thought to one possible obstacle: I was blissfully ignorant of the congregational prayer times. When I stopped to realise this, the problem merged darkly with the fears I already carried; presently I imagined bursting through the door of the prayer room, somehow nullifying the entire prayer with my disruption, and inviting the wrath of all who had assembled punctually therein.

As it was, with heart pounding enough to distract anyone from their fast, I ascended the steps, turned the door handle, and pulled.

The door tugged defiantly back at me, the latch giving a mechanical ‘tut’ as it clicked into place once more.

What to do now? A half-hour trudge back to school? Had everyone prayed and gone home? What time was it, anyway? (Why had I never thought it important to carry a timepiece?) Why hadn’t I driven here? Whose ridiculous notion was this little expedition anyway, Ramadan or no Ramadan?

I stood for a while. After all, I had walked too far to simply turn on my heels and return to school. Besides, I was tired. Would someone arrive – someone with a key? With what sort of a look would they greet me?

Would they greet me at all?

I was not given long to dramatize this layer of suspense; soon enough, an olive coloured man, wearing dull green garb and a shy looking smile, skipped up the steps.

‘Assalamu alaykum,’ I said, hoping to conform to the expectations of this stranger. I had barely met a Muslim since becoming one myself, and the greeting was certainly not one I was in danger of wearing out.

‘Wa alaykum assalam,’ he replied cheerfully. He pointed to the door and shook his head, raising an eyebrow as he did so.

I quickly drew several conclusions:

Firstly, that he had correctly deduced that the door was locked, or that only a fool would be standing here if it was open. (Unless of course it was raining. Which it wasn’t.) I was thus hopeful that he had not taken me for a fool.

Secondly, that he didn’t speak any English, or much of it anyway. Likewise, whatever language it was that he spoke, he must have been pretty confident we didn’t have it in common. All of which suited me fine; I had done all right until now, I felt, and was perfectly happy not to negate my progress by saying something stupid that he might understand.

He moved stealthily towards the door and I wondered momentarily if he might have a key. This notion was quickly dispelled as he began thumping the door, somehow gently and forcefully at the same time, and calling ‘Assalamu alaykum!’ through the crack.

I presumed all of this was a hopeful gesture on his part, but sure enough, within a minute or so, I heard a click and the door swung open. Greetings were exchanged between those on either side of the threshold, and I found myself looking at a man of average height with a thick, black beard. His eyes were tired and alive all at once, and he smiled warmly at both of us. The two men shared a few words in what I presumed to be Arabic, then the brother with the thick beard turned to me.

‘How are you?’ he asked me, in unmistakeable English but with a definite accent from a place I did not know. ‘I am sorry, I was here by myself, reading Qur’an. Were you waiting long?’

‘Fine, er, no, thank you,’ I replied, unsure of which question to answer first. ‘You? I mean, how are you?’

Alhamdulillah,’ he beamed. ‘What is your name?’

‘Jamal. Yours?’

‘Tawfik. Anyway brother,’ he said hurriedly, ‘Please do not let me keep you from your two rak’at for entering the mosque. Do you need to make wudu?’

I prayed, nerves slightly less frayed after this encounter. Looking back, I realise how Tawfik’s manner was entirely suited for the new Muslim lacking in confidence. In the years that have passed since we met, he has always been quick to advise where needed, but nonetheless always communicating a respect and an apparent assumption that one probably already knows whatever it is he wishes to say. It is a manner that instils confidence in others.

Yet, at this stage, I remained far from settled. After praying I sat for a time, and Tawfik came over to speak to me. I cannot honestly remember what we spoke about, but that I was leaning against a wall. Since I still felt incredibly uncomfortable in these surroundings, I was sweating profusely; when I eventually extricated myself from the wall, my sodden jumper contrived to produce an unpleasant slurping sound as it followed me.

My anxieties were not allayed when Tawfik announced that the brother I had met on the steps (name quite unrepeatable) had expressed a wish for me to break fast at his house the following day. This I could not fathom at all. Why would someone to whom I had only spoken two words, want me as a dinner guest? Now I grew suspicious. Alarm bells began to ring in my head. After all, surely there was no such thing as a free iftar? I agreed, and instantly regretted it. Why could I never say ‘no’ to people? Here I was, ready to be seduced into all kinds of terrorist activities simply because someone had fed me and I didn’t have the strength of character to resist the overtures that would inevitably follow. I beseeched God to make me strong enough to resist the call to jihad, knowing that my mother would not approve.

I nearly didn’t go. The food was delicious and the conversation friendly, just as I had feared. My friend from the mosque steps was an Algerian brother by the name of Abdul Ghani. I spoke at him in High School French and he responded with smiles and patience. I waited for news of my mission over coffee and baklawa.

Finally, Tawfik spoke. He wanted me to try to go for……Fajr. At the masjid.

Well, in many ways, this was a jihad too. At that time I was living in a room in a shared flat. I wasn’t close to my flatmates (except geographically speaking of course) and, to my knowledge, none of them knew I was a Muslim. Rattling around at 5.a.m. wouldn’t make me very popular. Still, I did it, caring that Tawfik had asked me to, and judging the likelihood of his involvement in some sort of sleeper cell diminished with every sleepy prostration at his side. But then he raised the stakes.

‘There is a night,’ he told me after Fajr one morning, ‘the best night of the year to spend in worshipping Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. Only He knows when this night falls, but we know it is in the last ten days of Ramadan. Insha Allah, if you can come, please… try to stay at the mosque next Friday night.’

The Night of Power. Contemplating my attendance the following week, and how I might have spent Friday nights only a few years earlier, I could only reflect that this must be powerful stuff indeed.

Meanwhile, behind my back, Tawfik was plotting. Everything would come together on this night, he hoped, by the permission of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

And so it did.

“‘There’s someone I want you to meet,’ said Tawfik mysteriously when I met him on  that chilly November night. ‘We’ll find him after the prayer.’

We broke our fast, prayed the Maghrib salah, and it wasn’t long before he introduced me to a brother named Muhammad. A revert like myself, he had married the eldest of three sisters, had three children, and lived about five miles away. Tawfik had implored him to spend the night at our local mosque, though there were several nearer to his home. He hoped that one revert could provide an invaluable crutch for another. We became friends, and formed half of a modest circle of brothers who would meet after Fajr once every weekend.

Please, dear reader, take a moment to reflect on the unlikely nature of the events described  thus far. Consider the rarity of my sorties to the masajid – a handful in twelve months. Ponder the apparent randomness of the first brother to arrive – Abdul Ghani – as I waited outside, and that he was not only able to summon the one person inside the mosque, but was also a close friend of his. Contemplate Tawfik’s acquaintance with brother Muhammad, who ordinarily would not have been at my local mosque on that November night, had it not been for Tawfik and my seemingly chance meeting with him.

Who is Muhammad now? He’s pretty much the same brother he was back then, of course, except that he now has four children. He’s also still the brother-in-law of the lady who is now my wife.

And the brother who loved Ramadan more than any other month? Who is he? Well, who else might you expect to find sitting in the mosque with the noon prayer on the distant horizon – seemingly alone, yet, in reality, surrounded by angels as he recites the Majestic Speech of Allah?

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