Ramadan Talks is a series in which we interview Muslims from around the world about Ramadan. Here’s Sweden!
To begin with, can you briefly introduce yourself?
I was born and raised in Sweden and converted to Islam when I was 19. I am now 29 years old, and I thank Allah that I have now been a Muslim for 10 years. I went to business school here in Sweden and I work for our small family company and I currently work from home during the pandemic. I have been married for three years, and I and my wife live in a small two-room apartment. She is a student and currently studies from home as well during the pandemic.
How do Muslims practise Islam during the pandemic? What has the pandemic changed?
It was different this time because we couldn’t go to the mosque. All mosques are closed here, and the restaurants must close at 8:30 pm which is before iftar. Visiting the mosque for the night prayer and eating iftar together with other Muslims in either the mosque or in a restaurant was always special to me and it’s something I miss during the pandemic. We stay at home for most of the time now, but we go out for walks in nature where there aren’t a lot of people. Then typically we eat iftar at home. The difference is that Ramadan this year is not experienced together with other Muslims and in a country like Sweden, where we are a minority, it is important to be together. Many of us, don’t have a big family here, who we can celebrate with. When we can’t go to the mosque or meet other Muslims as much, it is harder for everyone to give this holy month its right.
Back at the time before the pandemic, how was the holy month of Ramadan in Sweden normally? What did people do and how did they make use of the month?
Most people go to work during the day, and afterwards, they rest a little and then go to the mosque for iftar and prayer. Or they go out with friends or invite each other to their homes for iftar dinners. The mosques are open for five-time prayers and people would sit in the mosque as well. Everyone is happy and nice to each other during this special time. Those who have their Muslim families would spend it together and Ramadan would be a time of community for people. That is the biggest difference, I think.
As far as I know from the media, Sweden is associated with the longest fasting hours and the shortest period between fasting and suhoor. How many hours is your longest fast so far? How long was the break between iftar and suhoor?
The longest time we had so far have been around 19-20 hours of fasting. I depend a little bit on which school of thought you follow in Islam since we have people from many different cultures here. During the summer months, we don’t have a proper time for the Isha prayer and Fajr prayer, because the sun doesn’t set completely. We just have a long Maghrib time. It means that we will try to estimate the times for Isha and Fajr and there are some differences of opinions on how to do that. Some will say Fajr is at 2 am and some at 3 am for example. And iftar time is around 22 pm. That gives us a four-to-five-hour break between iftar and suhoor. Many will stay up during the night to make the most of this time but those who are working will try to sleep a few hours. This year we will fast from around 2 am until 9 pm which is slightly easier compared to last year.
Considering what was just mentioned, what does fasting mean to you? How did you feel while fasting? What is your reflection on these difficulties?
I love fasting, and I feel it is important for us. It is a time to remember Allah and increase our spirituality. It also helps us to be more thankful for everything that we have been given. It also helps us stay healthy and to have closer bonds in the Muslim community. Sweden is one of the riches countries in the world on a per capita basis, and I believe it is from the wisdom of Allah that he created for us long hours of fasting to help us remember our gifts in life and remember others who are in a difficult situation. The Muslims in Sweden always sends their charity and zakat to other countries since there are not many in need here. I think that if we didn’t have this opportunity to fast and increase our spirituality, it would be easier to get lost and forget about the favours of Allah upon us.
Do you have Swedish customs during Ramadan? For example, Güllaç and Pita are the first to come to mind in our country. We also fire a cannonball to indicate iftar time, just before the adhan. Ans then, drummers used to walk around the streets during suhoor to wake people up. What specific things enter your lives in Ramadan?
Those seem to be amazing customs in Turkey, and I remember hearing the drums before suhoor when I visited Turkey in the past. Unfortunately, we don’t have anything like that here. We are not even allowed to make Athan in Sweden, it is instead done inside the mosque or in the home. Everyone here will have different customs. There are many people from Turkey, Africa, Bosnia, and Arabs here, who will follow their customs and make their special food for Ramadan. In the mosque, people will bring different types of food and everyone will eat from it. We often have more than 20 different nationalities have iftar together in the same table. I think that makes the custom in Sweden different. This diversity is special to us.
Is anything done at the blessed night of Qadr in Sweden? If so, can you name it?
Most Muslims will try to stay awake and pray during this special night. They will try to do that for the last ten days to be sure to have prayed it. The mosques are full during this time during normal circumstances. They often invite reciters of the Quran from different countries who are specialised in its recitation. But since there is not always much time, the imam will try to keep it shorter than he would in his home country, so that people have time to eat and rest as well. Usually, there are two different imams in the mosque. One will pray the first round of night prayers which are shorter, and then the other will start for those who want to pray more. Many will also give charity during this night and renew their intentions and make tawbah. I like to stay up the whole night of Qadr and pray, be with my family and then sit on the balcony for a while at the end of it and reflect. It is warmer than other nights and I feel calm and happy during this time, and it is a great opportunity to remember Allah and a great time for reflection.
We live in a country where the majority, or even almost all of the people are Muslims. Everyone knows what Ramadan is. So how is the situation in Sweden? How well-informed are non-Muslims about Ramadan? Is there any change in their behaviour towards you during the month?
Not everyone knows what Ramadan is and there’s a lot of misconceptions about it and about Islam in general. I have had non-Muslims ask me if I can remain healthy while not eating and drinking for so long. They often suggest drinking a little bit at least, but they don’t understand the meaning of fasting. Overall non-Muslims are nice to us, and they express that they wouldn’t be able to fast for so long and they are generally impressed that we do that. Before I became a Muslim, I had never been without food or water for so long, so I can understand where they are coming from.
Likewise, does the state’s view of Muslim citizens change at all? How are you approached at these times? In fact, you can answer the question as to what the state’s attitude towards your Islamic sensitivities and prayers in general is.
I think the state try to make us feel included in society here although there are some new parties who are built upon hate against Muslims, which are gaining popularity. With that said, most non-Muslims are normal people who want to be nice to everyone. The current government greats us for Eid in local media.
There is a discussion here about forbidding teenagers from fasting as they are concerned that it is harmful to them and hurts their ability to do well in school. This is unfortunate as I believe that fasting is important for teaching many important lessons in life and maintaining a healthy heart.
Some workplaces have made it easier to take a vacation during Ramadan and they give us breaks during work which we can use to pray. But we don’t get a special break and we will pray when others are drinking coffee for example. It can be stressful to pray during work which is not always optimal. Generally, we are expected to work as normal during Ramadan, which is a typical Swedish mentality, that everyone must work the same. I think this is fair and it’s not a problem for most of us. I have some friends who work during the night and they will be given some extra time to eat suhoor as well.
Finally, let me ask about the holiday after Ramadan. How is the holiday celebrated in Sweden? What do you do? For example, would a Swedish Muslim kid look forward to it? What does eid mean for him? Do you have specific holiday customs? Like collecting sugar door-to-door or visiting grandparents.
The kids in Sweden have holidays from school during the Swedish holidays and not during Eid. But Muslim parents are trying to make Eid feel special, and they will give their kids gifts, money, and candy during Eid to make them feel happy. It is hard to raise children here since society has different values than us in many aspects. I believe that most parents are most worried about their children’s Muslim identity here.
My family are not Muslim, so I don’t have anything special to relate to, but my wife is from Turkey and we usually visit her parents and her sister’s house during Eid. Many parents will bring their whole families to the mosque for Eid prayer and the children will play together outside. I think many will bring their customs from their home countries to Sweden. But for Swedish who has converted, it can be difficult. In my first years as a Muslim, I would spend Eid mostly like any other day since I didn’t have anyone in my family celebrating it. But everyone is friendly and going to the mosque will help a lot for new Muslims because there are a lot of people celebrating there. I believe the mosque is very central to being a Muslim in Sweden because it strengthens the community.