A time for Muslims to examine faith

Ramadan is fast approaching, if you'll excuse the pun. The ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is expected to start on September 1 this year (the exact date fluctuates, as the Islamic almanac is based on the cycles of the moon).

It marks a period when Muslims abstain from food, fluids, cigarettes and sex - at least during daylight hours - and is widely believed to be a good time to establish or settle business deals. (It is no coincidence that the foundation stone for the Canterbury mosque in Christchurch was laid during Ramadan in 1983.)

There will be a marked increase in attendance at mosques, especially for the "iftar" meal that follows the daily breaking of the fast after sunset.

Devout Muslims will make an effort to read the entire Koran during the month and simply try to be better Muslims in general. Charity, known as "zakat", will also usually be calculated and distributed.

This will all culminate in the most important date in the Muslim year - the "Islamic Christmas" to some - the Eid al-Fitr, or festival of fast-breaking, a time to spend with family and give gifts to children.

There are approximately 36,000 Muslims in New Zealand, and about 4000 in the South Island. Most are recent immigrants and refugees from the Third World, although about 5 percent are local converts.

The first Muslims here were 15 Chinese "Mahomatan" gold miners recorded in the April 1874 census, in Otago. The first Islamic organisation (the New Zealand Muslim Association) was set up in Auckland in 1950, and the Eid festival was first celebrated at Parliament in 2005.

The New Zealand Muslim community faces some distinct and peculiar challenges, and Ramadan - a time of peace, piety, charity, meditation and reflection - is an excellent opportunity to review some of the more salient points.

There are the usual mundane issues of any burgeoning minority group in this country - education, employment, housing, etc. However the biggest unresolved issue that strikes me is the fact that the two top priorities facing mosques and Muslim institutions here are entirely contradictory.

Firstly, the mosques must, obviously, serve as a place of prayer where new immigrants can congregate and seek spiritual refuge or sanctuary from an otherwise largely unfamiliar host society. For many, the mosque is the only feature in this country that even vaguely resembles something in their homeland, so they want such facilities to remind them of their own native mosques and Islamic institutions as much as possible.

Secondly, the mosques must act as an embassy of the religion in its broadest sense, a beacon of the faith explaining the monotheistic message of the Prophet Mohammed in a manner New Zealanders can understand. (The Canterbury mosque, built in 1984-85, was named the "Masjid An-Nur", the mosque of light).

In order to attract and maintain local converts to the faith, or at least gain the sympathy of wider New Zealand society, the mosques and Islamic institutions must discard the unnecessary cultural baggage (such as the shameless discrimination against members of the Shia minority sect, for example) that the immigrants cling to so fiercely and with such disingenuous ambiguity. Only a rational and intellectual Islam will spread and last in a society this well educated, reasonable and perspicacious.

There is no easy solution to this intractable conundrum, short of erecting a chain of parallel mosques throughout the country (an unlikely proposition for economic reasons).

At another level entirely, there are broader challenges facing Islam globally that affect Muslims here.

In his 1947 masterpiece Civilisation on Trial, the British historian A J Toynbee wrote a prescient chapter anticipating many of the problems of Muslims in the later 20th century and today.

Toynbee hypothesised that Muslims could instinctively return to their roots in a sense that we would describe as "fundamentalist" or Wahabi - striving to emulate the Prophet Mohammed and to interpret every small detail of his life into some sort of hopelessly unworkable legalistic framework (as the Taliban has done). Alternately, they could seek to copy the material success of "the West" (ie, the secular republic of Turkey).

The drawback to both approaches was that option one perverted Islam into an intellectually sterile fossil with nothing original to contribute to the outside world - or, indeed, to Muslims. Option two simply leaves Muslims to ape or mimic other cultures, in what Toynbee dismissed as a "dwarf copy of Western civilisation" - again, with nothing new to contribute or share (Toynbee felt Islam had a lot to offer).

The truth, of course, is that Muslims must, even in New Zealand (or perhaps especially here), steer a middle path between these two extremes - trying to make the best of both philosophies, pragmatically mixing and matching as needs be to match the socio-cultural environment in this country.

In the aggressively pronounced secularism of our modern consumer-materialist society - the "spiritual desert" referred to by the Pope recently - Ramadan is above all an opportunity for meditation on peace.

For better or worse, Islam is hardwired into the history and collective consciousness of New Zealand. Local Muslims have an important role to play in this country, building bridges between peoples of different ethnicities and faiths through greater dialogue and mutual tolerance. This can be achieved only after a rigorous and transparent examination of the Islamic community's aims and objectives in New Zealand.

Abdullah Drury is the author of Islam in New Zealand.