Walking a Mile in Muslim’s Shoes: Why do Sergeant James Whelan and hundreds like him volunteer to fast alongside their Muslim colleagues?
Musa Sattar, UK
“Caffeine and water definitely pose the biggest challenge for me, especially the former,” Sergeant James Whelan said. ‘I love the challenge and I hope it conveys solidarity with my Muslim colleagues.’
Despite the tough nature of his job, Sergeant James Whelan of Surrey Police is one of the many volunteers who took part in the Fasting Collective Initiative and wants to continue it in the future. Why do James Whelan and hundreds like him volunteer to fast alongside their Muslim colleagues?
As the sun began to set over the picturesque Surrey town of Tilford on April 18, I experienced a sense of spaciousness and brotherhood, which is a unique beauty of living in a multicultural place like Britain. This is in line with the true teachings of Islam, as the worldwide leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), has reminded us that the solution to the world’s conflict is to live in harmony and create a sense of brotherhood without discrimination.
A group of non-Muslim British policemen and firefighters gathered for a meal unlike anything they had experienced before to show respect for their Muslim friends and the community at large. They had just finished a full day of fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan, during which they abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, as millions of Muslims around the world do every year.
This beautiful atmosphere made me reflect on the stark difference between this kind-hearted nation and places around the world where minorities do not even feel safe to practice their faith. And here our non-Muslim friends are fasting and demonstrating the values of this nation which embraces everyone with wide open arms.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association UK (AMYA UK) undertook a National Fasting Challenge with Surrey and Sussex Police, Surrey Fire and Rescue Service and Surrey County Council under the Fasting Collective Initiative. This marked the third year of this initiative and this time around 120 members volunteered to take part in the challenge, increase their first-hand knowledge and experience Ramadan.
For these officers, the decision to fast was an act of empathy towards their Muslim colleagues. As they broke their fast, known as iftar, with a traditional meal of dates, water and some salty snacks, they reflected on their experience.
“I’ve taken part every year it’s run and I’ve made the mistake in the past of being overly focused on trying to get enough calories and fluids on board before Lent starts – in order to suppress my hunger and thirst,” said Sergeant James Whelan, ‘This I have found to be ineffective and more importantly I think it misses the point of the day. Instead, I now focus on the acceptance of hunger and thirst. I do this by reminding myself that the Islamic community does this throughout Ramadan. I find that thinking this way serves to recalibrate my perspective on hunger and thirst – basically I stop feeling sorry for myself.’
As the sun began to rise earlier that morning, officers gathered virtually for a pre-dawn meal, suhoor, where Imam Mansoor Clarke offered some great tips. This allowed them to really think about what Muslims experience each year during Ramadan and to gain real insight into the Islamic fast. As Muslims use this month to improve themselves in morals and character, this message was also conveyed to the volunteers to show that Islamic fasting is more than just abstaining from food and drink.
For the officers who participated in the fast, the experience was a powerful reminder of the importance of empathy and understanding in building stronger, more inclusive communities.
‘I have to say it has been a humbling experience for me,’ said Dan Quin – Chief Fire Officer for Surrey Fire & Rescue Service, who also took part in the fast. ‘The sense of discipline and dedication that I observed today was truly inspiring. It made me appreciate the strength and spirit, spirit and faith that drives the Muslim community during Ramadan. This iftar meal is an excellent example of the togetherness and respect that can be fostered between communities
Chief Constable Gavin Stephens, who experienced the fast, said: ‘It has been an honor to be involved in this initiative, to show our support for our Muslim colleagues and communities during Ramadan, and to experience the fast together.’
“As police officers, it is important for us to understand and respect the different cultures and faiths that make up our community,” said Lee, Area Manager at Surrey Fire & Rescue Service. “This was a small but meaningful way to show our support for our Muslim colleagues and build stronger relationships with the people we serve.”
As we entered the mosque, the beautiful contrast created a light-hearted humor in the air, where as Muslims we keep our heads covered to show respect, while our respected guests removed their hats as a gesture of respect.
As the group finished their meal and reflected on their experience, they were filled with a sense of pride and gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this meaningful act of worship.
It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity that surrounds our preparedness in the media. However, it is crucial to remember that the majority of those who work in these services are fantastic people who work tirelessly to keep us safe and support us. Events such as the National Fasting Challenge are a shining example of this. Hibat ul Mohsin Abid, the Director of Outreach and Public Relations told me, ‘we are inspired by the experience and warmth shown by the participants.’ The initiative seeks to educate and inspire non-Muslims about the holy month of Ramadan.
“This event has really sparked our desire to ensure we create more informal spaces where the community can see the officers under the uniform,” said Andy George, Chief Inspector of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
As Tim de Meyer, Chief Constable of Surrey Police has rightly said, ‘First and foremost it has been a real exercise in discipline and sacrifice and realizing what it means to have something in abundance all the time and then to be deprived of it. My advice to anyone thinking of getting involved next year is to make sure you do because it is a formidable prospect to have to fast, but you learn so much from it and you learn so much from the people who you meet.’
About the author: Musa Sattar holds an MSc in Pharmaceutical Analysis from Kingston University and also serves as Assistant Editor of The Review of Religions and Deputy Editor of the Science & Religion section.