BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Ramadhan has always been a celebrated time in Brunei, where for one month Muslims abstain from food and drink from dusk till dawn, in order to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam.
The faithful turn their focus to daily prayer and acts of charity, and in the case of one group of young Muslim converts — a chance to promote interfaith dialogue.
On Monday, As-Syahadah Muallaf Youth organised an iftar for non-Muslims at the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque — the first event of its kind in Brunei.
Iftar is more than just a meal to break the fast, but an opportunity to connect with friends and family over food and the shared experience of fasting, said Muhammad Yusri Hj Abdul Majid, one of the event oragnisers.
Aimed at fostering understanding between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, the event also allowed non-Muslims to see one of Brunei’s finest examples of Islamic architecture up close during the holy month, when tourists are usually not permitted to enter.
Muhammad Yusri said it was a platform to educate people on issues that have been misunderstood in the past.
“Everyone is different, they have different values and different interpretations regarding certain things, like whether or not a non-Muslim can enter a mosque. There is always this misunderstanding but the answer is yes, within reason.”
Most of guests for the iftar had never stepped foot in a mosque and took part in a tour of Jame’ Asr before breaking the fast, marveling at the stained glass dome which dominates the centre of the building.
They were briefed on the history and architecture of the mosque, and on Islamic rituals such as prayer and ablution.
New Zealand couple Steve and Jackie Clark said they felt welcome as soon as they entered the mosque, adding that they were excited about being able to visit Jame’ Asr for the first time.
“I’m happy to know that I can come visit this place and to be able to enter the prayer hall, it’s so beautiful. I felt so calm walking around the mosque, it was so peaceful,” Jackie said.
“The tour was done very well, there were details that were made simple and understandable for non-Muslims, and I was surprised how open they were in explaining such things.”
The Clarks, who teach English in Kuala Belait, said they better understood the communal nature of iftar by being being able to share it with the other visitors on the tour.
“This experience has made me connect with the [local] culture more and eating together with everyone [gave us] this feeling of harmony, of how great it is to be human in this moment,” Steve said.
“Never knowing that we could enter the mosque, it is quite a privilege to walk through it and to eat together with everyone.”
Awaiting the azan, or call to prayer, guests were escorted to a community hall underneath the ground floor of the mosque as they prepared for iftar, eager to chat with each other about their takeaways from the experience.
For Anne Nabaasa, taking part in a Bruneian iftar, or sungkai, as it is known locally, was a different experience from her home country of Uganda.
“The iftar I attended [back home] was with a family, it was very different from this because here we are experiencing it in the mosque,” said the Universiti Brunei Darussalam Masters student. “And [the tour] was pleasant, it’s interesting because they have literally opened the mosque to us [non-Muslims].”
She said that being able to walk through the different spaces in Jame’ Asr, and having the Islamic rituals explained to her, made her see Islam in a new light.
“This openness [of culture and religion] teaches you that we are one and the same, that we are all people, regardless of the faith that we belong to,” said Anne.
Muhammad Yusri, who also works as an officer at the Islamic Da’wah Centre, added that welcoming non-Muslims into the mosque encourages them to understand local Islamic culture better and also boosts Islamic tourism in Brunei.
He said the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) is aiming to make the iftar event an annual affair, with discussions to extend it outside of Ramadhan when tourist volume is high.