Praying at Sea
In the First World War diaries of the Indian infantry units deployed to the Western Front, it is recorded that the 111th Indian Field Ambulance of the Lahore Division troops were travelling to Mesopotamia by sea from August 1914. The Field Ambulance was a mobile front line medical unit that had responsibility of caring for casualties during and after battle.
On the 11th September 1914, an entry in the diary shows how they were allowed to pray on the deck of the ship:
11.9.1914: ‘Last evening, about 8 o’clock … Mahommedans were informed and were allowed to come up on the Promenade deck to pray, facing east towards Mecca – they all appreciated this very much, and are most grateful to Lt. Colonel C. Coffin R for his kindness in thinking of it’.
Regiment: Indian Infantry
In a letter dated 10th November 1915, Abdur Rashid, a Havildar (non-commissioned officer of the Indian Infantry), writes to his friend Sheikh Ramzani in Dardanelles about the Eid prayer in Woking. Abdur Rashid was at the Baron Court Hospital in the south of England when he, along with hundreds of other Muslims, was taken to London by rail in order to take part in Eid celebrations.
He describes how there were 900 people at the prayer, and is fascinated that these included ‘English converts to Islam’. He reveals that the sermon was also translated into English. Abdur Rashid also details the food on offer, which included pilau rice and puri bread. Upon his return, he describes how his Colonel gave each Muslim soldier a gift, namely: ‘a pound of meat, six eggs, a pound of sweets, as much flour and spices as we wanted, and a pint of milk’. He concludes: ‘all the Musalmans met and enjoyed the feast’.
A newspaper report from 1915, in the Nottingham Evening Post, describes the Eid prayers for its readers. Entitled ‘Mohammedan Festival at Woking’, the article begins: ‘A scene truly oriental in character was enacted at Woking yesterday’. It describes the Eid prayers, the exchanges of greetings, and the food.
The war lasted over four years, so the Muslim soldiers would inevitably have to pass Ramadan in the trenches or hospitals. For many, this meant fasting from food and drink from dawn until sunset. Letters show that soldiers did try to keep their fasts.
One Afridi soldier in France, Badshah Khan, wrote a letter to a comrade in the 57th Rifles in which he complained: ‘I have seen some who did not even keep the fast’.
Another, Lal Din, a Punjabi driver for the 1st Indian Cavalry Division in France, asked his friend in Sialkot, India, how they should fast such long hours: ‘The nights are very short and if we do not get our snack before 2am the day is on us, and we can get nothing more till 9.30pm the following evening’. He asks whether they must fast, or whether they are exempted as travellers: ‘say clearly what are the orders about keeping the Ramazan when on a journey’?
At the Brighton Pavilion, Muslim soldiers were kept separately from the Sikhs and Hindus during Ramadan, to make things easier for them. One wounded soldier, Ghufran Khan, an Afridi of the 129th Baluchis, writes to a Subedar in Karachi that ‘the arrangements here to enable our people to keep Ramazan are excellent’.
One soldier, Zabu Shah, writes to his mother in Farrukhabad, in what is now northern India, that he misses smoking his hookah during Ramadan! ‘We do not feel hungry or thirsty, but should very much like to have a pull at a hookah’. He explains that ‘a Muslim named Amir has sent about fifty excellent hookahs for each regiment’ so they may smoke them in the trenches.