April 23, 2024

‘It’s about building community’

As Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan with Eid Al-Fitr, members of the UCalgary community reflected on the gift of a special Iftar dinner that focused on bridging cultures and creating hope for a better tomorrow
Guest enjoy an Iftar dinner recent held at the University of Calgary.
Students and guests enjoy an Iftar dinner held recently at the University of Calgary. Sarah Abouali, for the Faculty of Social Work

It was, finally, 8:01 p.m. and the hosts, UCalgary students and Muslim community members, began to circulate with stunning trays of dates to the appreciative and hungry crowd. 

Calling them simply “dates” doesn’t really do them justice — these were a labour of love, painstakingly created by many of the students in attendance who had spent all afternoon creating the sweet and savoury mini-masterpieces, some stuffed with almonds and drizzled with white chocolate and pistachios, others stuffed with exotic cheeses.

“Dates are the traditional way to break the fast during Ramadan,” said one of the students. “They are revered as the ‘blessed fruit’ because they were the favourite of the Prophet Muhammad.” 

The student explained that it is a “Sunnah,” or tradition, of the Prophet to break the fast on dates. They’re also a wise choice to eat before fasting, since they’re packed with nutrition and provide a great source of prolonged energy without a sugar crash.

As a non-Muslim, I now understood the special place that dates hold for Muslims. Besides eating them before and after fasting, during Ramadan they're also featured in many meals and desserts and Muslims often gift them to friends and family ... all of which explains why supermarkets prominently feature giant date displays during Ramadan, (when Medjool date sales typically increase by 37 per cent).

How a dinner can fight racism and build community

We were gathered for an Iftar dinner on the UCalgary campus. The Iftar dinner is the meal that Muslims break their fast with, every night of Ramadan at sunset. The UCalgary dinner was a special collaboration between the Calgary chapter of Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the Faculty of Social Work. The organizational heavy lifting was done by UCalgary students Danial Jamal, BSW, Abdul-Jawwad Al-Shawwa, MSc, and Sarah Abouali, BEd. 

Abouali explained that an Iftar dinner is about a lot more than just food. Muslims will often get together for Iftar and break their fasts with friends, family and the community. Giving back to the community and those in need is a huge part of Ramadan and the magic really comes in the sharing of the meal.

“It’s also about building community,” Abouali added, “it’s about getting together with loved ones, and forming spiritual connections. Ramadan has two layers for Muslims: the external, which includes fasting from food and drink, and the internal, which includes abstaining from bad behaviours, building good habits, and developing a closer connection to God.” 

The UCalgary Iftar is not the only community outreach meal put on by the energetic volunteers of ICNA’s Calgary chapter during Ramadan. For example, ICNA volunteers recently hosted a dinner at a local hospital, in which they thanked and fed more than 2,800 health-care providers, staff and volunteers. The association also regularly provides fresh produce and food to those in need. 

“As we share food,” Asif Ashraf, the ICNA Calgary president explained, “we also share a deeper connection, reminding us of our shared humanity. ICNA strives to carry this spirit forward, building bridges of understanding for a brighter, more inclusive future.” 

Where hope and community come together

Building a more inclusive future could well be the tagline for the national, five-year research project that is currently wrapping up for Faculty of Social Work researcher Dr. Aamir Jamal, PhD, who has been studying how Muslim youth across Canada build their identities against a backdrop of global conflicts and racist media portrayals. 

In light of recent global conflicts that have negatively impacted Muslims in Canada, including on the UCalgary campus, Jamal says events like the UCalgary Iftar dinner are important tools that help to dispel prejudice through greater understanding.

“We may come from different cultures, faiths, or races,” he says, “but we all belong to one family — the human family. My research has captured the racism and Islamophobia that Muslim youth are facing in Canada and around the world, but I believe celebrations like this give many of us hope, in painful times. At an event like this we see hope and community come together.”

Maybe it was this hope that animated the positive energy during the UCalgary Iftar. At 8:01 p.m. one of the guests, a muʾadhdhin, gave the call to prayer in a richly sonorous voice that underlined the evening’s compelling mix of the sacred and the more secular. 

As many of the Muslims in attendance — along with some of the non-Muslim attendees — took a moment in a nearby room to pray Maghrib after breaking their fasts on dates and water, many of the other non-Muslims turned their attention to the mocktail bar, where skilled volunteers were vigorously shaking up an amazing variety of delicious non-alcoholic drinks. 

From a nearby table, the intoxicating aroma coming from an armada of trays filled with delicious Pakistani and Arabic cuisine was quickly becoming very distracting (even for someone who hadn’t fasted all day) and I was relieved to fill my plate and join an energetic table where I learned a lot more about Pakistan, Islamic traditions, and the amazing work ICNA does in Calgary for people of all faiths.

While Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan with Eid al-Fitr on April 10, many in attendance said the memory of the event and the warm connections they shared will stay with them for a long time. Maybe until next Ramadan, when Jamal says the ICNA Calgary community already has plans to do it again. 

“The gift that larger community, and those of different faiths shared with us was that sense of community and enthusiasm in sharing and celebrating our traditions with us,” reflects Jamal. 

“I really appreciated that gift, and I think everyone was so happy. The Muslim community members who were there were happy and, really, I'm getting so much amazing feedback from different people about how they were happy in that occasion. And many of them shared with me that they were feeling respectfully treated and embraced. They were feeling it was such a safe and joyful space for all of us to celebrate our shared humanity.” 

The University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work is Canada's largest school of social work and globally recognized for innovation and thought leadership. The first priority in our 2022-2027 strategic plan A Place to Gather is equity, racial justice, decolonization and anti-racism.