As a Muslim from a majority Muslim country (Indonesia), moving to and studying in the UK has had its own challenges but has also brought unique experiences. In this post, I will share with you 9 things that you’ll probably understand if you’re a Muslim student in the UK.
First, a tiny ‘disclaimer’
Before I start, I think it’s worthwhile mentioning that I am a Sunni Muslim coming from Indonesia. How I practise my religion could be different to what Muslims practise elsewhere, for example within the Shia community or other Muslim sects – which I lack knowledge about but still respect.
You have to always pay attention to changes in the prayer timetable
Muslims pray 5 times a day and the time of prayer is based on the movement of the sun. I come from a tropical country where every day the sun rises and sets at approximately the same time, so prayer time is almost always the same.
But that’s not so in the UK where (in theory) there are four seasons, the clock goes forward in March and back in October, and the days are significantly longer in spring / summer and very short in autumn / winter.
To be on the safe-side, take a look at the prayer timetable every day to check the right prayer time. For example, I get a monthly prayer timetable from the Islamic Society (Isoc) at my university. There are also a number of mobile apps that you can download. And of course you can also set an alarm reminder for yourself.
There may not be a prayer room nearby…
When I did my undergraduate degree back home in Indonesia, I could find a prayer room, no matter how small, in each faculty at the university. We never had to walk far to pray. Living in a non-Muslim country, finding a prayer room can be a challenge.
Universities in the UK usually have Muslim prayer rooms. Mine does and the space is safe (you need a passcode to enter) and comfy (it’s spacious, not crowded and there’s a microwave, refrigerator and sink). It’s in a different building to where my classes take place, about a 5 minute walk – which isn’t ideal during winter time or on a rainy day. To make the most of my time there, I usually go to the prayer room at the beginning and at the end of the prayer day so I can do two prayers in one go.
…and finding masjid in the city is hard
If you live in a city where the Muslim population is very small or non-existent, it’s very hard to find a masjid (because of the negative connotations of the word ‘mosque’ I prefer to use the word ‘masjid’).
In Brighton where I study there are two masjids, but neither of them is in the town centre. Therefore, whenever I go into town, I make sure that I can get back home or to the prayer room at the university before prayer time ends. But, to be honest I often miss prayer time and end up having to catch up, which of course is not ideal.
If you can’t get halal meat, you could go vegetarian
In Brighton, just like elsewhere in the UK, halal stores / restaurants are clearly labelled and halal products usually have the halal logo on their packaging. Also, most major UK supermarkets and restaurant chains sell halal meat.
If in doubt, opt for Turkish, Middle-Eastern or Indian (or claimed-to-be-Indian-although-it’s-not) stores or restaurants. Or do what I do and choose to be a vegetarian. I seem to be the only one doing it though as my Muslim friends here still eat meat. For me, I just want to save money and time from cooking or eating meat, so I just tend to choose a veggie or seafood option instead.
Get support and free food from your University’s Islamic Society
When I enrolled at university here, I didn’t join the Islamic Society (Isoc) as a committee member, but I do keep up with the news and information they post on their Facebook page. For example, members remind each other to fast on special days when it is not compulsory but highly recommended to fast.
During last year’s Eid-Ul Adha, Isoc held a ‘breaking of the fast’ the day before, and a prayer and the morning meal on the first day of Eid. There was lots of food that had been donated by members. Although it wasn’t the same as the usual Eid-Ul Adha celebration back home where you distribute the meat of sacrificed animals to the poor, I did enjoy the celebrations and being able to mingle with other Muslims from different parts of the world.
The “Sister Circle” can offer a sweet escape from mundane things
At my university Muslim females come together in a group called ‘Sister Circle’. I find the weekly meetup / forum that’s held on Monday afternoons so peaceful and the group is far from judgmental. The forum is open to everyone who wants to share their ideas and listen to the thoughts of others on issues relating to Islamic life and after-life. For me, this forum provides a welcome break from my hectic university life, to find some peace for my spirituality.
Islamophobia…Yes, it does exist
I have to be honest and say that even in a multicultural city like Brighton and at my university where the Students’ Union very actively promotes justice, Islamophobia does exist. You occasionally hear stories about someone being attacked verbally or physically, such as being pushed or spat at. I’ve heard of attacks against both male and female Muslims. These incidences usually attract a lot of attention from Isoc and other Students’ Union officers, and also get investigated.
Personally, I haven’t experienced Islamophobia first hand. It may be because I don’t wear the hijab and with my Indonesian-Chinese face, I don’t look stereotypically Muslim. But I thought it’s better to always be careful with Islamophobic people no matter what you wear, just like we would be aware that robbery or other crimes might happen to us. And for all non-Muslims alike, I suggest you to get to know the person or certain ideas first before you judge.
People with a multicultural outlook will respect you
I’m lucky to be studying in a multicultural environment, and I feel that people in my school really appreciate the diversity of the students and staff. My Masters course is in development studies, a field that teaches us to be tolerant and respectful of other people and different cultures.
Because of the multicultural outlook, I don’t feel it’s an issue at all to declare my Muslim identity or to ask for special arrangements, such as regarding halal food or special times to pray.
During Ramadan, the fasting days can be much longer
Photo Credit: Sesame Street Facebook Page
Muslims have one special month in the Islamic calendar that we believe is a holy month: Ramadan. During Ramadan we are obliged to fast – not to eat, not to drink, and to hold our anger or bad emotions – from morning before sun rises until the sun sets. Moreover, it is recommended that a special prayer called Taraweeh* is offered every night in congregation in a Masjid (*As a Sunni I practise Taraweeh, but I’m not sure about other sects). At the end of Ramadan, we celebrate one of the most important religious holidays for Muslims called Eid Ul-Fitr, which in a way is like Christmas for Christians.
Ramadan, like the other months in the Islamic calendar, is based on the movement of the moon. Because of this, every year it starts about 10 days earlier in the Gregorian calendar than the year before. This year Ramadan has shifted to late spring / early summer when the days are very long and the nights short. In my country, I would usually fast for 13 hours per day. But at this time in the UK, I have to fast about 18 hours. I now have around only 6 hours to pray Taraweeh and eat sufficient nutritious foods before starting to fast again when the sun rises the next day.
My plan for this Ramadan is to stay awake during the fast break at night to eat enough foods and do some praying. This means I have to change my sleep schedule.
As for Eid-Ul Fitr, I will spend it away from home and family. But since I have close friends with whom I enjoy spending my time, I’m planning to hold a picnic or eating out on that day to celebrate.
I would say being a Muslim in UK has its challenges. However, having a support system and friends who respect my religion is really helpful for me to go through it.
I’m writing this with Ramadan having just begun this year, so I wish you all a blessed and tranquil Ramadan.
Meet me, Prili!
Hi! I’m Prili, a Masters student at the University of Sussex. Coming from Indonesia to study gender and development at the best school for development studies in the world (the Institute of Development Studies at the University) makes me aware about cultural and gender issues that may affect international students in UK.
I’m here to share with you my experience as I believe that self-reflexivity is important and sharing is caring. My personal blog is froyolava.tumblr.com and my academic blog is froyolava.wordpress.com. Lastly, I always try my best to appreciate my learning process at school and my beautiful life in Falmer, the countryside of Brighton!