I REMEMBER when I was a small child, waiting fervently for the television to announce: “Sekarang tiba waktunya untuk berbuka puasa bagi Wilayah Persekutuan dan kawasan persekitarannya” — what a wonderful feeling it was to be able to savour the multiple delicacies arranged across the table after a long day of arduous torture.
My favourite show back then was Diari Ramadan Rafique, a television series about a Malay-British boy who had to go back to kampung and learn about Islam and his Malaysian roots, which mainly took place during Ramadan.
Back then, I looked forward to Ramadan not because of the ritual itself, but because it is a month closer to Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Not until a few years later do I realise what a blessing Ramadan is — giving us the opportunity to perform taraweeh prayers, seek forgiveness for past sins and overall do our best to cleanse our souls.
Since this is my first year fasting in Cambridge, the long fasting hours — which is from about 3am to 9pm — seemed quite daunting at first. What’s more, the fasting month clashes with my final-year examination.
When I told my friends about it, they asked whether I would abstain from fasting during the examination and replace the fast on another day. Initially, I was quite open to the idea, but after Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s talk, in which he said that exams are just a challenge for us to overcome, I became adamant to fast for the whole of Ramadan.
So what’s it like to fast in Cambridge, or more generally in the UK, during the summer?
It’s actually quite a pleasant experience, I would say. A typical weekday would start with me waking up to my room being bathed in the sun’s warm golden light and preparing to head to the Engineering Department to revise for my exams.
As the weather now is superb, with the temperature hovering around 20°Celcius, I enjoy cycling around town with the cool breeze whipping across my face. At around 8.30pm, I would pack up my bags and head out to break fast with Malaysian friends at their house, or with the Muslims in the prayer room at the university.
My favourite part of the day would be during terawikh prayers at the Abu Bakr Islamic centre or at the Graduate Union, where I could see Muslims from practically all kinds of nationalities — generally Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians and Africans — gathering to perform ibadah. In Malaysia, the mosques would be filled with women wearing multi-coloured praying veils, whereas here they are usually in jubah and long hijab. One of the imams’ recitation was simply beautiful and soothing, and his Arabic accent reminded me so much of the imams in Malaysia that I felt totally at peace.
After terawikh prayers, I would return to my room to continue studying until around 2.30am, where I would have sahur and pray Subuh. And then I would sleep. It took a while to adjust to my new sleeping cycle. On weekends, kind Malaysians would invite me to break fast at their homes. And the dishes they prepare were simply mouth-watering, which is a nice change from my less-than-admirable cooking.
Truly, there is quite a diverse Muslim community in Cambridge, and I got to know most of the Muslim students from the Cambridge University Islamic Society. The town of Cambridge not only houses the University of Cambridge, but also the Cambridge Muslim College, which offers two full-time programmes — the one-year Diploma in Contextual Islamic Studies & Leadership and the four-year programme in Contextual Islamic Studies.
In February, I also had the chance to know more about Islam when I became one of the organising committee members of Explore Islamic Week (EIW) 2017, which aims to deepen the knowledge of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
As a co-head of the talk centering on the theme “The Golden Age of Islam”, I had the chance to meet speaker Ahmed Paul Keeler, a Visiting Fellow, Centre of Islamic Studies at University of Cambridge & Distinguished Fellow, Faculty of Leadership and Management at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM). Hearing him talk about Malaysia and the “kampung”, and his display of warmth towards a fellow Malaysian, made meeting him an absolute delight.
In his talk, he explained about Al-Mizan (balance of Islam), in which he posed that the western world was split into the Christian World, the Civilised World and the Modern World, while in the Muslim world, true balance was achieved as most scholars were also merchants and warrior statesmen.
As I mentioned in the last article, I was also involved in Charity Week, a non-profit volunteer-led organisation that operates through its association and partnership with Islamic Relief, a host charity. The ultimate vision of Charity Week is to become a vehicle to inspire Muslim students to become active, socially engaged and united upon Islam, while raising money to help countless orphans and needy children across the world.
Universities all around the UK and in other participating countries such as Canada, Qatar, Germany and USA all gathered to raise funds for Charity Week and succeeded in raising a staggering amount of about £800,000 (RM4.3 million) in 2016! The proceeds would go to the children in Gaza, Syria, India and Myanmar, to name a few.
For the Charity Week in Cambridge, we climbed Snowdon, Wales to raise money and sold cupcakes at the departments, amongst other activities. During a talk with one of the founders of Charity Week, Muhammad Wajid Akhter, I asked about Malaysia and there were plans to establish a Charity Week team here as well.
The main take-away from the activities that I joined, or from my observation towards Islam here in the UK can be summed up to three main points: never reserve judgment towards others, always strive to learn more about Islam and to keep abreast of global issues.
First, I noticed that Muslims from different madhabs such as Hanafi or Maliki perform ibadah in slightly different ways, but does not mean that they are in the wrong.
Second, EIW 2016 made me realise that although I’m a Muslim, I still struggle in answering questions from non-Muslims about Islam, hence displaying my inadequate knowledge of my own religion.
And third, I feel most Malaysians are trapped up in our own bubble, always taking for granted that Malaysia is a peaceful country that we forget that there are people suffering on the other side of the world.
I hope that my sharing snippets of my life here in Cambridge would bring benefits to Malaysians, as we should always strive to improve ourselves and challenge our way of thinking.
As Walter Mitty said in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”!
Nur Farhani Irfan Nor Azmi is a first-year chemical engineering student at St John‘s College, University of Cambridge, UK. A Yayasan Khazanah scholar, she was a former student of Kolej Yayasan UEM and Sekolah Seri Puteri, Cyberjaya. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org