Ramadan helps Auckland mosque curb stereotypes after recent spate of turmoil

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RNZ rnz.co.nz

This year's Ramadan has been a chance for one Auckland Muslim community to strengthen local ties after a spate of turmoil.

Police officers join in iftar at NZMA's islamic centres this year during Ramadan.

Source: NZMA

The start of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, was observed on 17 May and is due to end with a celebration of Eid either this Friday or Saturday, depending on the sighting of the moon.

In 2014, the Avondale Islamic Centre briefly closed after disagreements within its community.

Since it reopened, the centre - along with other New Zealand Muslim Association (NZMA) Islamic centres and mosques in Auckland - has been rebuilding relations with the local community.

The progress was particularly noticable during Ramadan this year the centre's Imaam, Muhammed Shaakir Ismail, said.

He said the iftar event - when Muslims gather together to break their fast - was one of the best, because it was filled with people from the wider community.

"After the turbulent time that happened at the centre, which negatively affected not only this centre but ... I think it also affected Islam in New Zealand as a whole," Imaam Ismail said.

"And because of the actions of a few people, [Muslims] become branded and we always have to give an answer or justify something.

Muslims who attended the centre regularly commented on the benefits of the iftar event, he said.

"It's almost as if somebody lifted up a mountain from their shoulders, because [the issues at the centre] was so tense and so difficult and [now] it all just flipped over and just changed.

"[There's] a sense of happiness that once again the centre is so active and programmes are happening on a daily basis."

The attendees at the official iftar included police officers, representatives from church groups, missionary members, visitors from South Africa, and about 40 to 50 newly converted Muslims, among them Māori as well as those of European descent.

Officers joined Muslims for Iftar at NZMA's Islamic centres and mosques this year.

Source: NZMA

"I saw so many new faces at the mosque and the centre was really abuzz and alive, it was all happening here and there was a beautiful sense of brotherhood, sisterhood and unity ... It was just a happy feeling and a happy environment for those who attended," Imaam Ismail said.

One of the constables who attended went the full mile and joined in fasting too for the first time.

"It was a long day when you're a hungry Samoan," Constable Tavea Tavea joked. "I ate before sunrise to prepare, however, I was definitely hungry towards the end of the day."

He decided to fast to have a greater understanding of the Ramadan experience.

"I was curious and wanted to know more about the Muslim religion and its culture, and I have a few Muslim friends so I wanted to experience their tradition," Mr Tavea said.

"I think it's important to connect with communities from all different backgrounds ... so that we have a better understanding of each other and respect for their culture."

Everyone was very inviting, he said.

"I didn't feel like a foreigner. People were friendly and came up to greet us."

NZMA president Ikhlaq Kashkari said the centre was working hard to overcome the prejudices leftover from 2014.

"Those issues have been resolved and Avondale [Islamic Centre] has been at the forefront of a lot of community work."

Since Ramadan was a special month for Muslims, the centre made extra efforts to connect with the wider community, he said.

"Every time we do that we learn more about each other and overcome assumptions and negative vibes that are out there in the media to try and bring that positive influence within the wider community."

NZMA plans to hold an Eid event on 23 June to "share the joy with the great New Zealand community".

Ramadan: What is it?

Ramadan is the name of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, it is the month when the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. During Ramadan, it is obligatory for Muslims - adolescents and older - to fast from just before sunrise to sunset.

Muslims fast not just becase it is an obligation but as a means of spiritually coming closer to their creator. In addition to fasting, Muslims must also abstain from leisures like smoking and physical desires.

Some refer to the month as a "spiritual detox" and use it as a time for self-reflection and devotion with extra prayers, recitation of the Quran and listening to lectures about Prophet Muhammad and his teachings.

Certain people can be exempt from fasting during Ramadan and that includes those who are too ill, who are pregnant, or who are travelling great distances.

The beginning of Ramadan depends on when the waxing crescent moon (hilal) is sighted as the Islamic calendar is a lunar one. Each month lasts for 29 or 30 days. It is also why, year on year, Ramadan is happening earlier.

Eventually, it will occur during summer time in New Zealand where fasting will last for about 16 hours instead of the roughly 12 hours Kiwi Muslims currently fast for each year.

Muslims in Sweden face the longest fasting times at the moment with about 22 hours each day.

Observers get up early for a meal before sunrise - Suhoor - and break their fast after sundown with a meal, known as iftar, which tends to be a feast with family and community gatherings.

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