How young Sri Lankan Muslims are exploring the meaning of Ramadan

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SHAFAQNA - The Ramadan Project on Instagram, started by a dozen Colombo youngsters and open to people of all faiths, captures hidden dimensions of the holy month.The Ramadan Project was initiated by 12 friends, some related to each other. After weekly prayers on Wednesday evening, four of them gather in a home in Colombo to discuss an initiative that they hope will help change the way Muslims are perceived in Sri Lanka.Among the group is Abdul Halik Azeez, a young economist with a background in journalism and an interest in photography. With more than 19,000 followers on Instagram, the popular photo-sharing site, Azeez, who posts @colombedouin, is among Sri Lanka’s most popular Instagrammars. He remembers the day he signed up for an account on the site simply because it was his first visit to Hulftsdorp, a suburb of Colombo that is the centre for legal activity. He had gone there to provide an eye-witness testimony about a mutilated corpse that he had found on the road. He thought the experience might be worth recording.
Since he first logged on in late 2012, he has shared some 1,300 images on the site, and was even invited to hold an exhibition at the Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo in 2014, a first not just for the gallery but for the country. The exhibition served to highlight how Azeez was a de facto documentary photographer. Incisive captions accompanied his photographs, providing context and insight.It’s the same approach that makes The Ramadan Project interesting. A small group of Instagrammars have been updating the account with images and stories related to their experiences of Ramadan. They also have a Facebook group and are active on Twitter. Anyone wishing to contribute can do so using #RamadanLK.
Interestingly, many submissions that have been pouring are targeted at  non-Muslims because they explain not just the customs and rituals around the period of fasting but also reveal its personal relevance to those of the faith. Together, the group appears to be enjoying discovering the ways in which Sri Lanka’s Ramadan festivities are unique – from the delicious kanji recipes to the variety of celebrations across different mosques in Colombo.
Amjad Saleem came up with the idea for The Ramadan Project. For him it is a way of reimagining the festival. He holds down a day job as a consultant on peace-building and humanitarian affairs, but he wanted to help people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, understand what Ramadan is about. For Muslims, he sees it as way to go beyond ritualistic aspects of the festival towards spirituality. For his wife, Amaani Niyaz, these days of fasting are about family and friends, a reiteration that coming together as a community makes them all stronger. It is also a time of year when she sees herself growing spiritually.Referring to the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in recent years, Saleem said he hoped the stories and photographs would help Sri Lankans of every faith understand his community better. “To some it must seem like Muslims disappear into a black hole for a month,” he said.

Sitting next to him, Azeez agreed. He said he was still surprised by how little some of his friends and acquaintances understood his community’s customs. At the same time, he wants to encourage his fellow believers to step out of their bubble and examine their faith.The collection includes intimate images, from the sprawl of men catching a quick nap in a mosque before prayers to the little room where women come to say theirs. Hana Niyaz, the fourth in the group, is quick to admit she does not have a way with words but she speaks with a quiet intensity when she describes what it is like to be in the mosque.
She explained that the majority of mosques are not open to women for the rest of the year. “There’s a huge difference when we have the opportunity to go the mosque to pray. I feel an inner peace that I do not when I am at home, when can be bombarded with other thoughts. I feel like my faith is much stronger and I love being there with everybody.”
Social media has provided this generation of progressive but deeply spiritual young people a space in which to share their thoughts and learn from each other. “In some Muslim establishments, ‘progressive’ can be a dirty word,” said Azeez, explaining that people like him are actually interested in unearthing the truths that underlie their faith.Amaani and Hana are looking forward later this month to exploring healthier diets during Ramadan. Amaani is a dentist, Hana a student of nutrition and dietetics. As part of a “healthy Ramadan” campaign, Hana tells people to cut out diuretics such as tea and coffee and go easy on the dates, which although extremely nutritious are high in calories.  The group is also planning Ramadan potlucks, which will include invitees from different faiths. Next year, they hope to expand to larger events and reach out to different groups through the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil.“For us, The Ramadan Project is not about an organisation,” said Saleem. “We are actually just a loose group of friends who want to talk about what being Muslim means to us, not because we want to convert anyone but because we are proud of our culture.”

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