For Muslims in Denmark, China and Cuba, practicing their religion comes with a unique
set of challenges.
BY Arfa Shahid
The Islamic month of Ramadan is a momentous time for Muslims around the world.
It is a highly-revered time for the faithful, as the holy Quran was believed to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during this month.
In addition to fasting for 30 days from dawn to sunset, this period is marked by increased devotion to God, charitable giving and community-building. Shared meals and family gatherings are a regular occurrence in most Muslim countries, and the government often grants individuals shorter working hours for the month, to make it easier for those who fast.
However, Muslims observing Ramadan in non-Muslim majority countries do not have the same benefits. In fact, Muslims in certain parts of the world sometimes face a unique struggle in practicing their faith.
Muslims in Denmark this year are fasting for 21 hours straight, the longest compared to any other part of the world.
“I actually follow a fatwa [religious ruling] which says that if you live in a country where the fasting period is longer than 16 hours, you can follow the iftar [breaking fast] timings of Makkah,” Hajer Mohammad, who lives in Denmark, tells Newsweek Middle East.
Mohammad says that there are Muslims, including her own friends, who fast the entire 21 hours while maintaining their everyday routine. In Denmark, there are just three hours to fit suhoor (pre-dawn meal before fasting) and leave three prayer sessions – Maghrib, Isha and Fajr. She says that while “it is a challenge,” her faith keeps her going.
While some like Mohammad’s friend may power through these 21 hour fasts, Muslims in places like Alaska—where there is no sunlight for months on end—turn to Islamic jurisprudence for a practical solution.
Fatwa number 575/2010 by Al Azhar Al Sharif by ruled that Muslims have two choices when it comes to fasting in such countries. One solution is to follow the timings of the countries in which the Islamic legislations appeared and in which day and night hours are in moderation, i.e. Makkah and Madinah, which is what Mohammad follows.
The other option is to calculate the hours of fasting in the closest country, in which the hours of day and night are in moderation.
In a country that is ruled by a communist party, Chinese Muslims face a different kind of struggle altogether. The country has been the cradle of a variety of enduring religious philosophies.
However, present-day China is mostly an atheist institution with strict separation of state and religion. Whilst the country formally recognizes Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Christianity, religious morals are generally not taught in school and the state closely monitors religious activities—particularly where—Uighur Muslims are concerned.
Kamla Tung, a Chinese-American who moved to Nanjing after her marriage, says that the situation is “complicated,” referring to Western media’s reports on Chinese Muslims being banned from practicing Islam. “It is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution on the part of the government.”
Tung explains that religion in China is a complex thread interwoven with ethnic identity.
She tells Newsweek Middle East that “Uighurs are largely the target of this form of governmentality and repression,” referring to the policy forbidding the practice of wearing the hijab or fasting in Ramadan.
“Much of this policy is based in Xinjiang province (where Uighurs were once the majority population) ….and is slowly trickling into other provinces such as Gansu,” she adds.
Islam arrived in China around 20 years after Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) death. Early Chinese Muslims were from Western China, also where the Uighurs are from. Hui are ethnic Han Chinese, who converted to Islam. The difference in identities came in 1949, when they started calling themselves the Hui. Some Hui claim lineage to Turkish and Arab ancestors.
Tung says that Hui and Han Chinese don’t intermarry or mix socially given the stark differences in their religious practices. Being a Hui Muslim herself, Tung says that she has not been targeted by the state and often gets away with wearing the hijab, while her Uighur friend is not allowed to wear the head scarf in the same city.
However, she says she “wouldn’t go so far as to say that Uighurs can’t practice religion.”
“As a foreigner, I get away with it. Outwardly I don’t look like a foreigner. On the surface they assume I’m from here but because I don’t look like the Uighur, so I get away with Hui people privileges,” she adds.
“We hold regular iftars every night at the masjid (mosque) and tarawih (evening prayers during Ramadan)… but the key to remember is that masjids in China are also bound to the government through the Islamic association.”
Bushra Ali, a student studying abroad in Nanjing says that she thought China had a complete ban on religious practice before spending a semester in the country. Ali says the problems in Xinjiang “have more to do with separatist movements” than Islam, adding that in other parts of China, there are less limitations on Chinese Muslims.
“Government supervision is still there, and there is a kind of limit on how many mosques there can be and where. But it’s more of a negotiation than outright oppression,” Ali tells Newsweek Middle East.
Islam in this Caribbean state is relatively new. There are approximately 10,000 Muslims in Cuba, most of them converts.
Alexis Sanchez Tamayo, a 35-year-old Cuban who converted in 2005 and goes by his Muslim name Aqiil, says Islam arrived in Cuba “in the early ‘90s through foreigners who were settled in the country as diplomatic personnel and students.”
Among the student population in Cuba who came to study at its prestigious universities, Pakistanis are the dominant group. There are approximately 1,000 Pakistani medical students in Cuba who were offered merit-based medical scholarships by the Cuban government in 2006, to study in the cities Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos.
Since then, they have established the Pakistani-Cuban Doctors Association to “upgrade medical care, uphold ethical and moral values, engage in social and professional activities [and] support educational & intellectual pursuits.”
Aqiil, who is from Havana and works as an English-language translator, tells Newsweek Middle East that the Islamic League of Cuba—led by Imam Yahya Pedro Lazaro—was formally recognized by the government in 2005.
Since Cuba has no state religion, temples and public places of worship were not allowed to be constructed previously.
The only public prayers performed were the Friday prayers, conducted inside Casa de los Arabes (The Arab House) in old Havana. The house belonged to an Arab immigrant, who lived in Cuba during the 1940s. It was reportedly open only to non-Cuban Muslims, such as tourists and diplomats. Cuban Muslims were not allowed to use the facilities.
It is rumored that Fidel Castro promised to have a mosque built for his country’s Muslims, but that never materialized. In October 2014, it was reported that Imam Yahya’s joint efforts with Turkey’s Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV) to open a mosque in Havana was rejected.
In July 2015, however, Turkey’s Diyanet Foundation—an affiliate of TDV—successfully built Cuba’s first masjid in Havana.
For the first time, Cuban Muslims were able to perform congregational prayers in a proper, dedicated space. Before, they would have to pray at Imam Yahya’s house.
Aqiil tells me that this year, Cuban Muslims are offering tarawih at the mosque, led by a Saudi Sheikh. He seems content.