What do sighting the moon, purifying your wealth and the postpartum rest period have in common? A strange question, I know, but they are each practical, lived elements within the deen of Islam. The practices of moon-sighting, zakat and forty days at home after birth held great importance for Muslims in the past but, in many cases, have had their status relegated to that of old-fashioned traditions. Knowledge that would simply have been common sense to our ancestors has been all but lost to us, whether derided through colonial history, or viewed, out of context, through our modern lens.
I spoke to visionary Muslim leaders in these three areas of life to understand how reintroducing the traditional wisdom of our ancestors can enliven us and connect us as individuals, while also empowering us as communities. Their imaginative visions paint a picture of how our future as Muslims in Britain could be; how our relationships could be stronger, how our experiences could be richer and how our lives could be more joyful.
What if all Muslims in the UK did Eid on the same day? What if sighting the moon together was a joyful community experience that united us with the environment, and the people, around us? This is the vision of Imad Ahmed, founder of the New Crescent Society. He’s attempting something that’s never been done before – an independent UK lunar calendar based on local moon-sightings.
The New Crescent Society currently has fifteen moon-sighting locations across the UK and has successfully sighted the moon for eleven of the last twelve months. The missing month was December, when there was too much cloud cover at all their locations. The moon would have been visible in Scotland – they just don’t have a location there yet.
“There’s a myth that the moon is not visible in the UK, or it’s not visible in the winter months. Over the last few years we’ve demonstrated that you can see the new crescent in the UK, all year round – you just need to work together.”
Imad’s inspiration for New Crescent Society came after a visit to South Africa in 2015. He experienced the moon-sighting tradition of the Muslims in Cape Town. They go down to the beach together, they sight the moon together and then they all celebrate Eid together.
“I was just blown away. There were people doing iftar, kids playing, they looked so happy. Local politicians attended the moonsighting, and then the community announced Eid on TV and on the radio. I thought, ‘this is amazing, why can’t we do this in the UK?’”
Motivated to share the experience he’d had in Cape Town with Muslims back in the UK, Imad began to search for locations to congregate and view the moon. He settled on Greenwich, where he’s been working with the Royal Observatory since 2017 to share his love for the stars and educate Muslims and non-Muslims alike on the history of astronomy and Islam. It’s clear though, as I speak to him, that his real passion lies in looking up at the sky; connecting to the environment and bringing other people together to do the same.
“Our mission is to connect the community to the cosmos: to bring people together, share food with one another, and marvel at the skies together.”
He describes the excitement and joy that comes from being out there looking towards the heavens and the understanding that can only be gained from experience.
“Unfortunately many legal scholars have read about moonsighting, but they’ve never actually done it themselves. I’ve found they often don’t know how to sight the moon, yet overcomplicate things with theories and legal injunctions that they’ve read somewhere. Yet it really is quite straightforward. Sighting the moon is like learning to swim – you can’t learn how to do it from a book”.
He’s certain that anyone who comes out to sight the moon for three months has more knowledge on the subject than most imams in the country.
“There’s a sighting location that is mainly attended by families, mothers and their children. On one occasion, some imams attended, and we all expected the imams to lead – but the imams didn’t know how to sight the moon! It was the mums and kids who taught the imams – and it really is quite easy to do.”
It’s this direct connection, open to anybody, that is so inspiring. It’s a powerful reminder that Islam is not just for scholars. We need teachers, yes, but not intermediaries.
“What is so exciting to me about this project,” Imad continues, “is that it’s about connecting people to the source. Just look at the moon. For me, the moon is a metaphor. Just like the moon is for everybody, Allah is for everybody; and when you sight the moon for Eid, Eid day is for everybody too – whether you’re a mother or a mullah.”
His comment is profound and empowering. The moon is something we all have access to and there’s a joy that comes with that. In fact, joy is reflected in the very language we use to describe the new moon in Arabic – hilal.
“Hilal comes from the Arabic root related to shouting out in joy,” Imad mentions as an aside, “the tenth form from the same root, istihlaal, means the first cry when a baby is born. The trilateral root has a similar meaning in Hebrew: to shout, or to praise – and also, a flash of light. Hallelujah is from the same root, meaning ‘Raise your voice to praise God.’”
The vision he describes for the future of moon-sighting in the UK is certainly a joyful one:
“In a hundred years’ time? I hope that this is an established tradition, and Muslims in every location can go out to look for the moon, especially for Ramadan and Eid, sharing food and joy. Maybe there will be a live stream from all the locations across the UK, so people can feel the fun and anticipation, waiting for news across the country, and enjoy that sense of calendrical communion with everyone across the isles.”
Looking at what has been achieved in less than five years, it’s a vision that doesn’t seem that far off.
What if UK zakat could really serve to empower UK Muslims in great need? What if the potential for zakat to heal hearts and strengthen communities was realised? That’s the future Local Zakat Initiative hope to see.
Zakat, a pillar of Islam, is an obligatory tax. Zakat must be taken from all Muslims whose wealth is above the threshold, but can only be distributed to specific eligible recipients. This separates it from sadaqah – charity which is given freely, to whoever you want.
Local Zakat Initiative are passionate about localising and re-humanising zakat, a responsibility which has largely been handed over to charities. Their aim is to connect with and support communities in establishing local systems of zakat collection and distribution.
“I want local zakat collectors to become familiar fixtures in towns and cities across the country” states Ahmed Peerbux, co-founder of Local Zakat Initiative. “Familiar faces – not distant charities – who are from communities. Who are known and appointed by those communities. Who take zakat from the wealthy in those communities and then distribute it among the poor in those communities.”
He speaks of two things that inspired him to take on this task; the prophetic sunnah itself and the contemporary crisis we are in.
“During the time of the Prophet ﷺ, what was collected in an area was also distributed in that same area,” he explains, recounting a hadith of the Prophet ﷺ sending his companion Mu’adh to Yemen with the instruction to collect from their wealthy and distribute to their needy. “Such was the impact of this instruction, that after only a few years Mu’adh could no longer find enough people in need around him locally. Only then did he send a portion of the zakat away from Yemen to Medina.”
The second motivation he refers to, the contemporary crisis, is the fact that 50% of UK Muslim households are in poverty, while 98% of Muslim giving in the UK is spent overseas.
“There are Muslims in Britain – praying at the mosque with us, living next door to us – who should be receiving zakat. A few people have said to me ‘there isn’t real poverty in this country compared with abroad,’ but that really belittles the hardship a lot of Muslims face here. It almost denies their struggles. And when they say ‘besides, the state helps here,’ it denies us our responsibility as Muslims.”
The confusion between zakat and sadaqah, and the reliance on charity organisations, is one of the biggest initial barriers Local Zakat Initiative have faced.
“If you google ‘Zakat’ now, all you’ll get are charity ads. Even though we know that zakat isn’t charity, I think we have conceptually coupled its implementation with charities. There’s this idea that it’s the only way to “do” zakat, that there’s no other way. One person said to me, ‘I love what you’re doing, but there are no zakat collectors in my area so I just gave it to a charity in the end.'”
It’s this kind of response that the initiative particularly hopes to address. As I speak to Peerbux it’s clear that he himself has moved from an attitude of “we don’t really have a choice” to a strong conviction that we do.
“The Muslims in Britain already have amazing community infrastructure in place. You can come together with others in your community, be it centred around a masjid, a community hub, a sufi tariqa, a study circle, a suburb or whatever, and appoint a collector who will take and distribute zakat locally. Someone who is recognisable and reachable, someone who is trusted; someone who will take on the responsibility of ensuring that the needy in their community don’t go unnoticed.”
He’s given zakat a lot of thought in the context of the other four pillars of Islam. “All the pillars of the deen are things Muslims do together; acts of worship which nurture a sense of community. Prayer in congregation is twenty-seven times better than praying alone and when there’s a shahada, everyone wants to gather round and watch. The pillars literally bring us closer together, whether we’re standing shoulder to shoulder in the mosque or pushed up against each other on the hajj. It reminds me of that verse in the Qur’an, to be ‘in ranks like well-built walls.’ That’s when we’re strongest as a community. But when you pay your zakat to a charity online with a few clicks, you miss out on all of that.”
There are a handful of communities in the UK who have already established zakat collection and distribution locally; in Luton, Liverpool, Bradford, Nottingham and Norwich. Ahmed himself collects and distributes in London, albeit on a small scale.
“Recently, we were able to help a Syrian refugee and widow with two teenage children here in London. They have only been in the country for eleven months, don’t speak any English, and have been under lockdown in an unfamiliar place with no family, friends, or funds. They can’t even afford internet; they are invisible, and cut off.”
“There was another Syrian refugee family we gavezakat to last week, just down the road from me. They were newlyweds when the civil war began in 2011. A missile destroyed their home and left the man unable to walk. When we gave them the money, they insisted we came in and then invited us back for another visit. It was clear to me that it wasn’t just the financial help they appreciated; it was the human transaction, the greeting, the dua, the conversation, the connection. I think it was also the thought that people who know them had told me as the collector that they were in need. It was the thought that people cared for them. And that is Islam: ‘harisun ‘alaikum’. ‘He is deeply concerned for you; he is gentle and merciful to the believers.’”
What if women observed the tradition of staying at home for forty days and were fully supported to heal physically, and transition spiritually, after giving birth? What if we all had knowledge of the simple practices and remedies that can dramatically improve a woman’s postpartum health outcomes? These are the questions that Nicola Mahdiyyah Goodall is addressing in her work as a doula and educator.
She’s a wealth of knowledge in all things women and birth, particularly the post-partum period. The tradition of staying home and resting for forty days after birth is a topic close to her heart. She lectures on the subject, writes about it and runs workshops on it. She’s currently writing a book too, about decolonising the postpartum. Her passion for the subject is infectious.
Her research has shown that staying home for forty days postpartum used to be a universal practice, not just among Muslims but across most societies. It’s been completely wiped out in places like the UK but among Muslims it’s something that many people have heard of – maybe their grandmothers or their mothers speak about it.
The potential benefits from observing the practice are numerous. Reduced rates of prolapse, reduced rates of post-natal depression, reduced rates of exhaustion and greater successes with breastfeeding are just some of the health outcomes that Mahdiyyah has learned about through research, from personal experience and through supporting her clients. Not to mention the spiritual element.
“It is a matter of religion,” she adds, “and we are told that it’s a good idea. Particularly energetically, to protect the mother and baby, to let them settle and so on.”
So what has caused women to abandon this practice, both in wider society and in Muslim communities? It appears the answer is multi-layered. In the UK, the practice disappeared with the second world war, becoming unachievable for factory workers and even within the Muslim community, where there is still some awareness of the practice, there’s often a view among younger generations that it is cultural nonsense, especially when it is viewed as a strict prohibition on leaving the house at all. Then there’s the reality that we don’t live like we used to. For most women, to observe a period of forty days requires a lot of support. “You need twenty people,” Mahdiyyah suggests, “not just you and your man.”
It occurs to me that accepting that help and claiming the time for ourselves is something that might feel uncomfortable for many.
“I am that person that does say ‘I’m not doing it, deal with it’ but a lot of women can’t do that. And then, who’s taking the children to school? How is food getting into the house? Who’s clearing up the mess?”
Interestingly, Mahdiyyah has both postpartum experiences. As a 25-year old, when she had her first daughter, she dismissed any sort of postpartum rest as “for grannies.” She was up and about the day after giving birth. “I thought I knew better, like we all do when we’re young. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was just exhausted. I was exhausted for two years after her birth. Tired and achey and miserable.”
She finally healed in full after destiny led her to an incredible GP with knowledge of home remedies. When she had her second child eight years later her opinion on postpartum recovery had turned 180 degrees.
“I said, ‘I’m doing forty days. I don’t care about school, washing, nothing. I’m staying home. And everyone can starve.’ At the end of six weeks I was ready to go: healthy, fit and bright.”
Her personal experience, and the desire to share this knowledge, has been a huge motivation for the work she does. With the realisation that two years of healing could have been completed in six weeks, the issue of postpartum care shifted in her mind. It became a matter of justice for women. As she puts it “you don’t have to be exhausted, with bleeding nipples, crying your eyes out.”
Mahdiyyah has four children. The last three were each born eighteen months apart and when her youngest was three months old she found herself at a trampoline park; a birthday party that one of her older children was attending. Unable to resist the opportunity to bounce, she jumped onto a trampoline with her baby and began calling the other mums to join in. They all got on and then ran off to the toilet. It was another huge turning point for her. She’d just had three babies, one after the other, and was the only mother who wasn’t wetting herself on the trampoline. The only mother who could jump for joy.
She puts it down to allowing the body to heal and allowing the muscles to contract by observing a potentially challenging, but relatively short, period of rest. Something that was common practice in all Muslim societies until recently.
“I really want to spend a year,” says Mahdiyyah, “travelling around the UK, going to all the masjids and cultural centres and helping to train the women there to set up a rota system. So that when you have your baby you know that every day you get a visit from a member of your community and they bring you some food and put the washing on or help with taking the kids back and forth to school or whatever needs to happen in your family. All you need is forty women who are prepared to help for one day. Or eight women who would come once a week. It’s really achievable.”
It’s an extraordinary moment, if we stop to reflect on it, to have a human transition, through your body, from the unseen to this life. It’s an irreversible process and a lot for a woman to integrate, both physically and spiritually. Given that context, is forty days without cooking dinner, running to the shops or driving the kids to school too much to ask for? Consider, the possible results include feeling energised, avoiding a prolapse, actually enjoying sex again and even being able to jump joyfully on a trampoline. What if we could facilitate that for each other? How might that change lives, relationships and families? How might that strengthen communities?
Each of the leaders I spoke to had a realisation that they couldn’t keep to themselves, an experience they wanted to generously share with others, and these three initiatives grew as a result. They’re not waiting for somebody else to solve the problem, they’re using what they have available to bring communities together and address a need. Each of these initiatives looks at a situation with curiosity and possibility and asks “What if there’s a different way? What if it’s simpler than we previously thought? What if the answer lies in our tradition, in the way our great grandparents did things?” and I’m left wondering this: what if we could do the same?
Rahma Dutton is a writer and storyteller. She loves the smell of coffee and alone-time with a book. She tells stories to remind herself and others that we’re never alone, even if it sometimes feels like that. You can read more of her work at rahmadutton.com. IG & Twitter: @rahmadutton