Corporal Sohail Ifraz, Private Abubakarr Mahmoud, imam Ali Omar, Sergeant Dorian Mark John, and Major Naveed Muhammed

by SARWAR ALAM THREE Muslim soldiers who have recently returned from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, have spoken of their appreciation for the British Armed Forces who organised the trip. The trio were a part of a group of 10 military personnel from the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force who visited Makkah and Madinah to complete Umrah (a 10-day pilgrimage) during Ramadan. “It will be a journey of a lifetime,” said reservist Private Abubakarr Mahmoud, who spoke to Eastern Eye before flying out on May 2. Mahmoud, who has been with the Army for a decade, is a full-time civilian health care assistant at the University Hospital Leicester. He admitted that the support he has received as a Muslim in the Army is one of the reasons why he hopes to go full time as either a nurse or doctor with the Army in the future. “It is an important spiritual journey that I have always wanted to do, but never had the chance. I am so thankful for this opportunity,” Mahmoud said. “The Army has supported me so much when it comes to my faith. I have time to do my prayers, have halal food and also an imam to support me.” The delegation was hosted by the Saudi Armed Forces who first invited their British counterparts in 2016 as a way to strengthen bilateral ties. With two trips each year, another group of military personnel will perform Hajj later in the year. Hajj would cost a civilian between £5,000-£7,000. “It’s incredible opportunity for our Muslim soldiers. Everyone dreams of completing Hajj, but not everyone gets the ‘calling’,” said imam Ali Omar, who is the civilian Muslim chaplain to the military and was part of the delegation to Saudi Arabia. “And the fact that we get invited every year now shows the level our relationship has reached with the Saudi Armed Forces,” Omar added. Military personnel are asked to put their names forward if they would like to go on Umrah or Hajj. Ten names are then picked at random as there are many more applicants than places available. Corporal Sohail Ifraz, a clerk in the Army, said he was “shell-shocked” when he got a place to go on Umrah. “I wasn’t expecting it and just feel so privileged to go to the blessed land of Saudi Arabia,” he revealed. “Every Muslim has a spiritual connection to that location. It’s the direction we offer prayers and is the hub of our religion,” he added. Ifraz found that his selection to perform Umrah increased the understanding of Islam within his unit. “Soldiers and senior officers have started asking me questions about the pilgrimage, such as ‘why do you pray to that one location?’ “When we speak to one person about our faith, he tells four of five others and it kind of branches out from there. And it’s just not our faith. It’s with all faiths in the Army. When you become an advocate for your faith, it increases understanding.” Long-serving members of the armed forces have seen an increased effort by the organisation to improve diversity and inclusion among all ranks. Sergeant Dorian Mark John, who has been with the Army for 16 years, is based in Germany and works as an administrator. He recalled Ramadan during his early years in the service when he would do 20-mile runs while fasting. “It wasn’t a case of being forced into doing it. It’s just there were no clear-cut instructions on how to accommodate Muslim soldiers during Ramadan,” he said. However, in 2010 the Army introduced a Defence Instruction Notice (DIN), a set of formalised policies, created by key Muslim figures in the Army with leaders within the chain of command, to better support Muslim soldiers during the month of Ramadan. Major Naveed Muhammed, the project officer for the Umrah trip, explained: “The DIN outlines what the chain of command should expect during Ramadan and what the individual should expect from the chain of command. For example, if you are deployed on operation, then your own and your colleague’s safety and well-being takes precedence. And here the imam comes in and explains the theological reasoning behind this. “If you are based in the UK or in Germany (non-deployed), then we take a common-sense approach. The system is flexible for the needs of Muslim personnel. We wouldn’t expect them to do arduous physical exercises such as 10-mile runs. “Also, during Ramadan, catering is mandated to provide meals for Muslim soldiers with early breakfast and late meals. The policy states that Muslim personal are entitled to dates and couple of other things as part of their catering provisions. It might seem like small steps, but it makes a difference to these guys. The system looks after Muslim soldiers.” John acknowledged that the policies introduced in 2010 have made a big difference, and the Army is an accommodating organisation to not just Muslims, but people of all faiths too. “Since the first publication of the Ramadan DIN, it has been much easier to explain Ramadan and fasting. That has led to better religious understanding. The support I have been afforded in recent years has been remarkable. It has demonstrated that religion is no hindrance to the performance of duties as soldiers. “The Armed Forces are an accommodating organisation. I would ask Muslims to engage with the Army. You might think the Army is not welcoming to the Muslim community, but that is not the case at all. “I always get time for Jummah (Friday prayers), we get halal food rations. If something is important to you as a person, then the Army will let you go and do it. Soldiers and Muslims work very, very well together.”