For many people, sharing a snack with fellow Muslims is an exhilarating experience. During iftar in the two holy cities, people often sit with strangers of different nationalities and languages, and with whom they only share one thing in common — that they are fasting in obedience to Allah. In fact, many say the experience helps them develop an ethos of brotherhood.
What makes these gatherings special, which for many is an once-in-a- lifetime experience, is the variety of people from different cultures and nationalities that gather in the holy cities. Most of the food that is on offer in the holy mosques is donated by local people, who also bring along local Saudi dishes. It is remarkable to see these people busily laying tablecloths, setting cups, distributing coffee, tea and dates and often delaying their own iftar to ensure visitors to the holy mosques are at ease and comfort.
As sunset approaches, silence descends on the two mosques as people begin turning toward Allah in supplication. Islamic theology says prayers are answered at the time of breaking fast. What better place to beseech the Almighty than the two holy mosques while one is in the state of fasting in the month of Ramadan. One cannot help notice the fervor with which people supplicate as their eyes swell with tears. Through the humming of people reciting prayers one can hear the odd pilgrim bursting out in tears pouring out his or her heart’s contents to the Almighty.
Pilgrims from across the world can be seen busily praying in their own languages asking for Allah to cure their loved ones, grant them lives that are lived in His servitude, forgiveness of sins and for the needs of both this world and the hereafter.
Once the iftar cloths are laid, there is no hierarchy in where people sit. Everyone is the same. In a remarkable expression of brotherly love, the rich and the poor, and the black and the white, can be seen sitting together and sharing the same food.
People greet each other with smiles. Friendship quickly develops and pilgrims are known to keep in contact with people they meet in the holy mosques.
It is common too see Saudis talking with people from Upper Egypt before iftar. Likewise, people from the Sudan can be seen talking to Syrians and Pakistanis.
In the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, Mahdi Othman, a Sudanese national, was busy praying on his prayer beads. He had arrived in the Kingdom on Umrah and had only reached Madinah the day before. “Breaking fast inside the Prophet’s Mosque is something that I will never miss as long as I am here. During this month we never worry about breaking fast. Everyone around you is friendly and everyone wants to help,” he said.
“What makes this special is the feeling of brotherhood. You get to meet a lot of people and make friends with people who you’ve never known and who you’re unlikely to meet ever again. Why would I want to miss all this and break my fast inside my hotel?” he added.
Abbas Sabri is from Cairo. This is his sixth Umrah visit to the Kingdom. He arrived one week before Ramadan. Having performed Umrah, he said he wanted to spend most of his time in Madinah.
“One of the things that made me want to come for Umrah during Ramadan is the feeling of brotherhood when I come here. If you look around you, this is the true picture of Islam that we want to see, unlike the negative image that exists outside. I wish the whole year was Ramadan so we wouldn’t lose the beautiful feelings for each other.”
Sabri mentioned how well organized iftars are in the Prophet’s Mosque. “As soon as the call for prayer starts, people immediately start collecting the ‘sufras’ and place them in garbage bags to be thrown away. Within 20 seconds the place is clean. Food is removed and people are ready to pray,” he said.
In Makkah, the situation is similar. Many pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and in the courtyards outside do not miss the opportunity to join their fellow Muslims on this very unique and annual occasion. Sultan Al-Harbi, a young Saudi, was busy laying iftar. “This is a family tradition that we carry out each year. There is no better feeling than helping fellow Muslims and visitors to the House of God to break their fasts,” he said.
“We are seeking reward from Allah so with every halala spent on preparing and buying the food we hope to be rewarded in the life after. My three brothers and I take four locations and we serve people food. We do not have much on the table except for dates, yogurt, water and some juice. Other people join in the table and bring their food with them,” he said.