From June 18 until July 17, Muslims around the globe will celebrate the holy month of Ramadan.
During the first day of Ramadan, my friend Ali invited me to join him to break fast (yes, two words, not breakfast) at my town’s Islamic Center. After a twenty minute walk to the mosque, we arrived a few minutes before maghrib,the fourth prayer of the day, coming right after sunset. About thirty men of all ages (as well as a few boys) milled about a large, white-walled room with green lined carpet, greeting each other with “As-Salam-u-Alaikum” (Peace be unto you). Two long table cloths lined the floors and were neatly covered with small bottles of water, bowls of dates, croissants and cream cheese. The men sat on the floor surrounding the cloths, passing dates around.
Since Muslims make up almost a quarter of the world’s population (23% or 1.6 billion people), understanding the month is important. It is the time that the holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by God (referred to as Allah). During this month, members of the religion fast during daylight and read through the Qur’an.
Without the ability to eat, drink or smoke during the day, Muslims must place their focus on self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity with themselves and in light of the religion. The Qur’an explains:
“Allah desires ease for you and he does not desire hardship for you, and (He desires) that you complete the prescribed period (of the Fast) and magnify Allah for His Guidance to you; that you may be grateful.” (Quran 2:185)
Traditonally, three dates are eaten to break fast in the same way that was originally fashioned by the Prophet Muhammad. Now that the sun had set, the men were contentedly savoring those dates. It’s their first nourishment since before sunrise, around 4 AM. Each date is delightfully sweet and satisfying, and must be especially so after a hot and patience-testing day.
After the dates, the collective volume level in the room rose as men chatted and eagerly passed around water, cream cheese spread, bread, and lamb shawarma in pita bread. When the call-to-prayer began minutes later for maghrib, things became quiet and the men formed orderly rows along the lines on the floor.
Throughout maghrib, men spent alternating periods standing, on their knees and bowing. They pay close attention to the prayers that are delivered by the Imam (mosque leader) while staying in orderly lines with no gaps. This prayer is an active experience, and the close community of followers must surely be felt when surrounded by so many. The process of prayer is very deliberate, and this congregation of believers move and pray together as one. The level of devotion present, especially on the first night of the holy month, is moving.
With Christians making up a huge portion of religious followers in our country (3 out of every 4 of Americans in 2010), it’s important to highlight the thriving, yet smaller religious communities that may be overlooked. For example, North America’s largest mosque, the Islamic Center of America, sits in Dearborn, Michigan.
I find that it’s also important to highlight these followers because the number of followers for non-Christian religions will increase as we head further into the 21st century. The Pew Research Center estimates that “during the next four decades, Islam will grow faster than any other major world religion.” By 2050, “Christians and Muslims will make up nearly equal shares of the world’s population,” according to Pew. (I highly recommend you fully look at the article.)
Once the prayers ended, the Imam gave a brief message about the importance of the food that was about to be served and how it should not be wasted. We then lined up and were served a meal of rice, chickpeas, lamb, pita and hummus on styrofoam plates. Men sat around the tablecloths once again and our neighbors chatted about Egyptian and Iraqi politics, graduate school and the month to come.
After the meal, we went outside to catch some fresh air. Men walked around, smoked cigarettes and chatted, greeting the stream of followers who parked their cars and entered the mosque. Upon re-entering, the number of men in the room had at least doubled, a reminder that it was only the first day of holiday and how important it is to come to the mosque and pray. Granted, many may only to mosque during Ramadan (like many Christians attend organized services during Christmas or Easter), but it’s an important reminder of just how sacred this time is to all Muslims.
During this month, Muslims will continue their important practice of praying five times a day toward Mecca, which is the center of the Islamic world and birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Outside of this normal prayer, they are encouraged to do good deeds, which are magnified in the eyes of God during the month and are an extremely important part of Ramadan. Good deeds can range from walking to the mosque to helping organize activities at the mosque to helping prepare suhoor (a pre-sunset meal) or iftar (post-sunset meal). Much of this was explained to me a dizzying evening (in the best way), by Ali. All deeds are emphasized so that they bring one closer to Allah.
As Isha began around 10:45, the men formed rows along lines on the carpet, but filled many more than the previous prayer. For the entire duration of the prayer, more rows filled in with stragglers of all ages who were still eager to join. By the time the prayer ended, men were smiling and embracing each other. The room was buzzing and Ramadan had only just begun.