It’s supposed to be a period of serene, prayerful contemplation, a time to explore the depths of faith and to think of the poor. But for many of Kenya’s 10-million Muslims, the month of Ramadan this year has become a reflection on crime, HIV/Aids and the effects of the United States-sponsored war on terror on the followers of Islam around the globe.
”Muslims in Kenya used to close themselves off from what was happening in the world around them; they refused to get involved with social issues.
”But now they are raising their voices,” Sheikh Mohammed Idriss, the chairman of the country’s Council of Imams, explained.
After the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, in which more than 200 people were killed, 9/11 in 2001 and the blast at the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel near Mombasa in late 2002, Muslims in Kenya ”went underground”. ”They did not have the confidence to face their fellow Africans; they seemed ashamed of their faith Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ but now, during this Ramadan, they are bolder,” Idriss told the Mail & Guardian.
”I am hearing them say: ‘Not all of us are al-Qaeda; not all of us are [Osama] bin Ladens; Allah help us’ Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ They are bringing politics into the mosques where, before, they would simply pray for the poor, go home and eat.”
Hussein Abdulrasul (64), who for 36 years captained a dhow in East Africa’s treacherous waters before he became an imam in Mombasa’s Old Town, confirmed Idriss’s assertions.
”This Ramadan, I want to think about all the Muslims around the world who are being persecuted for their faith, those who are locked up by the Americans at places like Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib Prison [in Iraq],” said Abdulrasul.
Crime is also a central theme this Ramadan, with Kenya’s people of Asian descent — known locally as ”Kenasians” — feeling under siege by gangsters who perceive members of the close community as supremely wealthy, and therefore prime targets.
When Ramadan began earlier this month, Kenya’s Chief Kadhi, Hamad Kassim, pleaded with the police to increase patrols around mosques. And although the authorities have claimed success in protecting the faithful, they have not been able to prevent some crimes.
”I was on my way back home from mosque; it was about 11pm. I stopped at my gate and someone smashed my window, and took everything I had in the car. The criminals wait for us to end our prayers, and then they follow us to attack. They are targeting Muslims because our movements are predictable during Ramadan,” said Ferial Moothoo (27).
Outside the Jamia mosque in central Nairobi, a man calling himself ”the gatekeeper” stood firm: ”The non-Muslim cannot enter; I am so sorry,” he said politely. Later, the ”gatekeeper” explained: ”Jamia is a place where Muslims of all races — Arabs, Asians and Africans — gather for taraweh [prayer], and this proves there is no racism in Islam.”
”There are still many Muslim elders who are against the empowerment of women,” said Farhin amin Yakub (27), manager of a hair salon in Nairobi, whose prayers this Ramadan would be on ”my Somali brothers, those who feel that it is necessary for their women to be circumcised. I will ask God to change their hearts, to end the brutality against young Somali girls.”
At Pangani mosque, Tawfiq Issa Juma (54) was clear on what Ramadan meant to him: ”No sex, smoking or drinking of alcohol; there are too many young Muslims now drinking and this leads to lots of sex. What about Aids? They are lost souls.”
Yakub, however, grimaced at the ”strictness” with which some Muslims approached Ramadan.
”Although I’ll be observing most customs, and I will be respectful, I just can’t live without a glass of red wine at meals!”
Then she laughed: ”As for some people saying ‘no sex at Ramadan’ — well, that won’t be a problem for me!”
And in an area outside Nairobi known as ”little Mogadishu” because of its large Somali population, Fareedh Ali Joho (34) called for baraka [blessings] on Somalia. Peace is my main concern this Ramadan.”
The traditional way for the fast to be broken among Muslims in Kenya is through the eating of dates at a meal called iftar.
”You eat three rutabs [moist dates], or the tamr [dry dates], and maybe drink some water,” explained worshipper Harleen Jabbal’i (30).
But dates have to be imported from the Middle East, and many cannot afford the expensive delicacy. It’s then that the true spirit of Ramadan is revealed when wealthier believers donate dates to mosques, giving their poorer countryfolk the opportunity to maintain tradition.
”For me, Ramadan in Kenya will always be associated with the smell and taste of sweet dates,” said Mahamoud Ismail (29), who’d just completed late prayers at Jamia mosque and was clearly relishing the prospect of a meal.
”We must pray and think of the great Prophet. But no matter how hard I try, I always think mainly of dates,” he sighed.