Ramadan and the beautiful spaces we negotiate

Amir Mawallil
'If this country is serious in building harmonious relationships in communities wherein tolerance and inclusivity are significant interventions, the Holy Month should be everybody’s business'

Ever since I started to live in another city – first when I was getting my university degree in Zamboanga City, later on to live in another city for work – one thing that life taught me about survival was this: Spaces are negotiated, and the practice of my faith, constant amidst the daily demands of living in Islam, is a constant reminder of struggle.

 Living in a country where the majority are non-Muslims, Ramadan is always an opportunity for me to reflect on things that should matter most for a young professional Muslim living the city life. My relationships with family and friends, my faith in Islam, continually allow me to develop strategies to negotiate my spaces, and to eventually successfully practice my religious obligations, while blending seamlessly into my community – best described as diverse, but always inclusive without being violent.

The observance of the Holy Month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the foundation of the Islamic faith practiced by Muslims around the world. During this month, we, Muslims, fast, pray, read the Qur’an, and reflect on deeds and sacrifices for Allah.   

Growing up in a Tausug Muslim family, it was easy for me to navigate through the traditional Islamic practices during Ramadan. Now, living separate from my family, I rely on my memories of childhood to always remind me of days waking up early in the morning for a suhur to begin a day-long abstinence from food and water. 

Suhur for me then was sabaw maymu, prepared by my parents and of course, coffee, an important drink for Muslims in the island-provinces. When I was young, everything was easy as long as I did it together with my family; I think it’s the same for all families including non-Muslims, say Christians during Christmas and New Year. 

Iftar, the breaking of the fast before twilight was always a delight for a young Muslim like me as my favorite varieties of food were on the table. Iftar then was a beautiful closure of a day done in the company of family members, an opportunity to express gratitude for what was to be opened the next day, for the suhur. Every day during Ramadan was a reminder that life was a paradox framed on what was always constant: fasting or abstinence, the thing that binds me and the rest of my family, and the Muslim world, to Allah.

FIESTA. For Amar Mawalil, Ramadan is a month-long celebration of reinforcing my his being Muslim.

My young adult life during Ramadan was about an expansion of spaces. Suhur and iftar were no longer exclusive to family members and close relatives. There were days when I had to join my classmates and barkadas to break the fast, move from one house to another for the tarawih (night prayer), and like the others who experienced the vitality of youth, I also enjoyed the company of friends outside of my clan. Cousins were the closest relatives that I formed a bond with, as fellow Muslims, during the month of Ramadan. It was then that Ramadan became the time for me to reflect on the sense of a bigger community Islam has given to us Muslims.

From high school until college, Ramadan was an opportunity for me to bond with other Muslims in the country. From Tausugs, Sama, Yakan of circles from when I was a child, I was able to forge brotherhood and lasting friendships with Meranaos, Maguindanaoans, Iranuns, Kagans, and other ethno-linguistic groups that comprise the Bangsamoro, balancing the political and religious baggage that came with this term. It was in the university and in other activities outside school that I met fellow Muslims from other ethno-linguistic groups. I surmised then that indeed, we were created differently and in diversity, and Ramadan was the gift of opportunity for us Muslims to understand each other in prayers and in fasting.

Adult life meant more responsibilities and demands from society. After college, I worked for various organizations so I needed to travel outside the Sulu archipelago, Zamboanga, Mindanao. I worked for various local and national organizations until I ended up in my current job.

My previous and current work demand that I expand my circle, explore new horizons, and eventually, dismantle all my walls. There is a need for me to work with non-Muslims, colleagues from outside Mindanao, expats working in the country, and even fellow Moros who do not practice the religious obligations during Ramadan as fastidiously as my family members and circle of close friends. 

I started to learn how to negotiate spaces, to adapt and articulate my own version of exclusivity in exchange for engagement. Adaptation and negotiation were necessary for me to practice my faith and at the same time, educate the people around me about Islam and its teachings. I learned not to demand, but to play it by ear, to use my intuition, to rationalize habits, to survive. 

In the end, Ramadan taught me that together with sacrifices and my faith, building relationships which were the foundation of a strong community should also be the primordial concern of a Muslim like me, living in a highly diversified society where I and others like me are a minority. That Islam, through Ramadan, is to build a world that stands on tolerance and on spaces that are being created and re-created so we can understand ourselves and others better. 

In the Philippines where Muslims are in the minority, the observance of Ramadan was more of a challenge for me, inherent to this feeling of being “othered,” marginalized, and excluded by the rest. But I must admit that not once have I experienced attending birthday parties, or work-related meetings, or rendezvous with non-Muslim friends, where food was being served in the middle of the day during Ramadan. Life in the Philippines is secular without being adversarial to Muslims and other faiths – and I consider this more of an opportunity than a threat. 

While a majority of Filipinos think Ramadan is only for Muslims, for us Muslims, it is the month where we work together to create an environment for holy sacrifices, for silent prayers, and self-reflections. Here, the negotiation for spaces is already beyond family and community, but is rather an opportunity to reach out to the rest of the nation. Ramadan is no longer exclusive to Muslims and if this country is serious in building harmonious relationships in communities wherein tolerance and inclusivity are significant interventions, the Holy Month should be everybody’s business. 

How to engage non-Muslim Filipinos to open up and learn about Islam is my duty as a Muslim. I am lucky to have Christian friends and colleagues who fast with me as gesture of solidarity, co-workers who are sensitive to my needs during the day of fasting, Filipinos within my circle who are always curious of our fastidiousness to the religious practice.

For Filipinos, as far as my circle is concerned, Ramadan is a month-long celebration of reinforcing my “being Muslim,” a “fiesta” as how my closest Christian friends describe it; and it was always a challenge for me as a Muslim to create a language to engage my non-Muslim Filipino friends and colleagues in its traditions; a language that we can both speak; a language where negotiation of spaces is possible. 

This year’s Ramadan has started well for me. Like the rest of the Muslim world, I am still thankful for Allah that we have been given the life, another year as they say, for this opportunity for sacrifice, to worship Him this holy month.

From Muslims living in countries where there is peace and prosperity, and to those brothers and sisters who suffer in Syria, in Pakistan, and the Rohingyans in Burma – together for the whole month we will open and close the day with celebrations, sacrifices, and prayers while reaching out to the rest of the world, sending the message of Islam that is building a better world on peace and tolerance. – Rappler.com 

Amir Mawallil, 27, is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network (YMPN), the country’s biggest organization of Muslim professionals. 

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