June 6 marks the start of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is observed by Muslims as a period of ritual fasting to commemorate the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad, who (I understand) had sought solitude in a cave on Mount Hira when he was visited by the Angel Gabriel.
My knowledge of religion is, at best, limited, and as far as my own “beliefs” are concerned, I would describe myself as agnostic. I do not believe, nor disbelieve in the presence of any deity… I simply do not know. However, I do have firm convictions borne from lived experience that are fundamental to the way I view my own mortality, but whilst I accept that my reality which is outwardly unexplainable almost demands contemplation of the existence of a higher power, I can’t translate what I know to be true into any form of faith.
That said none of the foregoing prevents me from respecting those whose lives are guided by any faith (or rather any faith that does not promote intolerance, inequality or violence)—and I can absolutely appreciate (because I have seen it in others) the strength and comfort that can be derived from spiritual guidance and divine worship.
I have a couple of very good friends within the local Muslim community with whom I have shared (albeit a while ago now) deep and introspective thoughts on faith, the world around us and the universe as a whole (as well as boxing and Star Wars…). I am way out of my depth when it comes to such conversations, but not once were my views undermined let alone summarily dismissed. We chatted not as Muslims and non-Muslim, but simply as people… friends from different cultures and backgrounds for whom our diversity was something worth taking the time to understand—and celebrate….
I fasted for two days during last year’s Ramadan. I know it’s not a full month, but a man can only eat so many dates. On both days, I made the schoolboy error of waking up after sunrise and therefore having to effectively go a full twenty-four hours without food and water, but to compensate, my Iftar on the second night consisted solely of chocolate cake….
Those who follow Islam use Ramadan to bring themselves closer to their God, Allah, through spiritual reflection, increased worship and repentance. For me, the fast is an opportunity to devote quality time to those who have shaped the person I am and to some extent, the life that I have; in particular the relatives who have long since passed away, but who I miss every single day.
In my wallet, I have a half-crown from 1879… a worn silver coin that was worth two shillings and sixpence back in pre-decimal times. My great grandfather John was born in that year—in a workhouse to an unmarried mother. Jane Kirby raised her son in the slums of Walmgate in York; an area that was notoriously overcrowded, insanitary and shrouded by a black cloud of polluted air. Jane worked from home as a matchbox maker, and notwithstanding the fact she was a single parent (disowned by her family who lived in the rather ironically-named Hope Street).it would have taken her three full weeks of thirteen-hour days to earn the single coin that accompanies me everywhere.
137 years later, such hardship in the city of my birth is impossible to imagine, but in historical terms it’s little more than the blink of an eye and I keep that half-crown as a constant reminder of the life Jane endured to give her son the best start she possibly could, and as a simple token of the gratitude I feel, but I can never repay.