Ramadan and Islam in Malta [Archives:2005/893/Reportage]

November 10 2005
Photo from archived article: photos/893/report2_1
Photo from archived article: photos/893/report2_1
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Am I a muezzin in Malta? This expression is said by an exasperated speaker who is being ignored by his or her audience. An expression which probably stems from the observation that very few people in Malta, if any, are Muslim. The call of the muezzin there is assumed to fall on deaf ears.

However this assumption does not hold true any longer. There is nowadays a small but thriving Muslim community in Malta. It numbers a few thousands out of a national population of about 400 000. It also includes many expatriates hailing from all Muslim countries of Africa and the Middle East as well as Asia and Europe. The Muslims in Malta form a multicultural group. The individual members of this group retained the traditions and the customs of their respective ethnic and cultural backgrounds. But at the same time, these differences have gradually combined to make one distinct community. Islam is, of course, the common denominator which holds the different members together. This unity and the manifestation of Islam are most evident during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Now that Ramadan has begun, the daily routines of people in Muslim societies change. However the Muslims in Malta are a minority, and a relatively new one at that, within a mostly Roman Catholic populace. Thus the everyday pace of everyday life is not affected on a national scale: people must still to go to work at normal working hours; children still need to go to school. This poses significant difficulties to Muslims who seek to fulfill all their rigorous religious obligations of fasting and prayers. Nonetheless, most manage to do just that, a behaviour admired even by many non-Muslims.

The Islamic Cultural Centre in Malta is the fulcrum around which all major religious activities turn. It was founded by the Islamic Call Society whose headquarters are in Tripoli, Libya. The Centre comprises the mosque, administrative offices, a primary school and the Imam's house. Since its cornerstone was laid by Colonel Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi, the Libyan head of state and leader of the Revolution, on 2nd July, 1978, the Centre has aimed at rendering service to the Muslim community in Malta by the performance of religious rites, the celebration of religious occasions as well as the promotion of the Arabic language and the Islamic culture. The Centre also aims at acquainting the general Maltese public with Islam while enhancing dialogue and cooperation for the benefit of all. The Centre's helping hands extend to the poor, the refugees and prisoners. The Islamic Centre is the most important meeting point for Muslims in the country.

At the end of Ramadan, the Centre organises the Eid el-Fitr festival. The adjacent primary school is allowed a few days of holidays so that the students can celebrate the Eid with their families. Moreover, a formal reception is held at the Centre to which the Prime Minister of Malta and other honourable guests are invited. This annual event reinforces the excellent relations which the Centre, representing the Muslim community, has with the local authorities.

The Maltese islands with a total area of 316 km_ make up a small republic in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The capital city is Valletta. Their history has been described as chequered because all the powers that were ever present in the Mediterranean region have left their impact. Prior to independence in 1964, the Maltese islands have ended up as possessions or colonies of foreign powers including the Arabs in 870. The Maltese language is a direct result of this mixture of cultures. After 1090, European powers secured the Maltese islands into their realms and the islands eventually served as Europe's southern border and a bulwark of Christianity. Meanwhile new words from Italian and other European languages were assimilated into the Maltese language but the Semitic background prevailed.

The Maltese word Randan illustrates this fact. It means Lent, the Christian time of fasting, and lasts forty days. Its first day is called Ras ir-Randan. A number of language scholars believe it to be an interesting relic of a time when Christianity and Islam co-existed on the island. The word Randan, the Christianised version of the Muslim Ramadan thus dates back to a time when the Christian period of fasting was much more rigorous than it is today and comparable to the present Islamic Ramadan. This word is common to both Christianity and Islam (although rather altered after nearly 900 years) but for the Maltese it has no Islamic connotations or undertones. Similarly, common to both religions are the words Alla (Allah) and Ghid (pronounced 'eid, meaning festival.)