Thoughts on Ramadan in North America

When I first came to Vancouver, Canada nearly 32 years ago, Ramadan –” the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk –” was in its last week. Because of the strike by the employees of the Air Canada, I had to settle for the Greyhound Bus to complete the last leg of my journey. It was a 28-hour long trip via some of the most scenic places on earth. I ended up arriving in Saskatoon just the night before Eid-ul Fitr, the day of festivity after the month-long fasting.

With all the schedule changes with my date and time of arrival, there was no university official from the Office of the International Students to receive me at the bus terminal. Instead, Dr. Shakeel Akhtar, an Indian Canadian and an old-time friend and roommate of Professor Nuruddin Ahmed of BUET (who did his PhD from the University of Saskatchewan), whom I had called soon after my arrival was gracious enough to pick me up from the terminal. He was a noble soul and took me to his home. [In 2005, Dr Akhtar was awarded the prestigious Saskatchewan Volunteer Medal at the Legislative Building that recognized his outstanding volunteer service and exceptional community involvement.]

In the midst of the journey, I had lost count of the Ramadan, and was told by Mrs. Akhtar (now deceased) that the next day was the Eid. The next morning we drove to the Islamic Center, located a few miles from the university campus. It was a newly bought property which was a church before it was sold to the Muslim community. In those days it was the only mosque to cater to the spiritual needs of several hundred Muslims that lived in the city. The provincial capital city Regina did not have any mosque. Dr. David Russell, a chemistry professor at the University of Saskatchewan, was the president of the Islamic Center. The congregants for the Eid prayer included several foreign students and residents –” both local and from the nearby towns. Some congregants came from places that were more than a hundred kilometer away from the Islamic Center.

It was simply heartening to meet so many Muslims from so many parts of the world who had come to the center for observing the Eid. I met nearly half a dozen Bangladeshi graduate students. I also met many Pakistani and Egyptian students there. After the Eid prayer, two of the Pakistani students took me to their university dorm for temporary accommodation before I could find an apartment. Over the next 22 months, I would occasionally come to the Islamic center for the Friday prayer service and Taraweeh prayers during the month of Ramadan.

Both Professor Russell and Dr. Akhtar tell me that as the city size and population had grown in the last 32 years, so did the Muslim community. There are now more than 3000 Muslims living in the city. As the old Islamic center was not big enough to hold the local congregants, there are now two centers in the city of a quarter million people.

When I came to southern California in the fall of 1980 to pursue a PhD degree the localities surrounding the University of California campuses had no mosques or Islamic centers. Muslim students in Santa Barbara rented a small apartment to perform daily prayers. Los Angeles city, which by then had more than a hundred thousand Muslim residents, had only a handful of Islamic centers and makeshift mosques. Other than the Islamic Center on the Vermont Avenue and the Inglewood mosque, most of these were small places, not large enough to accommodate every Muslim within the local community for the Friday prayer services. Masjid Umar ibn-al-Khattab, near the USC campus, was still in the planning stage. On the days of Eid, space was a huge constraint to accommodate congregants and most Islamic centers and mosques would have multiple offerings of the Eid prayer. Many communities would rent city or municipal halls, or open spaces to perform such yearly events, a trend which continues to this very day. While the number of mosques and Islamic centers has since multiplied several folds in California, these are still too few and far between to meet the spiritual needs of the growing Muslim community.

In the late 1980s when I moved to the Philadelphia area, the situation here with mosques and Islamic centers looked even worse than those felt in Los Angeles. Outside the Bawa Mohiuddin Fellowship Center near St. Joseph University and the two mosques on the Walnut Street of Philadelphia, close to the U Penn campus, there was hardly any full time mosque. Most of these other mosques and centers were too small for the congregants and were open only on some prescribed times of prayer, usually dawn, evening and night, i.e., three out of five required prayer times. Most Muslims living in the tri-state (Greater Delaware valley surrounding Philadelphia) area ended up praying in rented rooms or narrow basements with bare pipes snaking along the ceilings and walls.

I remember driving almost 30 miles in Philadelphia to attend my first congregation prayer in a mosque that is still located at the intersection of the 45th Street and Walnut Street. That property used to be an abandoned church which was bought for a hefty price and converted to a mosque. Attending Friday prayer there on a regular basis was simply inconvenient for me. Later when I was able to locate a Turkish mosque in Levittown, which was about ten miles from my work place, I offered my Friday prayers there occasionally.

The situation has now improved quite a bit with more mosques and Islamic centers in the Greater Philadelphia area. However, many of these new mosques are makeshift structures –” mostly old homes or shops –” bought from previous owners which have been converted to prayer halls or rooms. None of these is a new structure built from ground up with Islamic architecture and planning. A visit to most of these makeshift mosques and Islamic centers would also show that these places are not large enough to accommodate every congregant coming on the Fridays, let alone on the Eid days.

As expected, during the month of Ramadan, most of these mosques and Islamic centers throughout North America are crowded with devotees who are trying to revive or improve their individual spirituality. It is the best time for seeking repentance and self-improvement. According to Islamic tradition, the reward of every good deed done during this month is multiplied several folds. And as such, many pious Muslims devote long hours in prayers, meditation, contemplation, and giving in to charity and alms-giving, and engaging in voluntary community activities.

Breaking the fast with a small meal called Iftar after sunset in the mosque or Islamic center is a common tradition amongst most devotees. North America is no exception to that general practice. Many Muslims here volunteer to feed fasting Muslims and non-Muslim visitors after the sunset prayer. Many mosques and Islamic centers offer special devotional programs between evening and nightly prayers from learned scholars. It is also the time when people get to know each other better and create bonding.

In spite of 9/11 and a plethora of problems –” global and local, imposed and self-inflicting – Islam is thriving. It is the fastest growing religion in the USA. It is estimated that some six to eight million Muslims now live in the USA. Many of them are either first generation American Muslims (White, Hispanic and Afro-American) or children born to immigrant Muslim parents. Quoting the Gallup and PEW polls, Professor John Esposito says that American Muslims are one of the most diverse communities in the world, representing 68 different countries as well as indigenous African Americans and converts. Muslims represent men and women spanning the socioeconomic spectrum: professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, and educators), corporate executives, small business owners, or blue-collar workers and laborers. Esposito writes, “In fact, 70 percent have a job (paid or unpaid) compared to 64 percent of Americans overall. Muslim women report monthly household incomes more nearly equal to men’s, compared with women and men in other faith groups. Education is a priority for many Muslims, who, after Jews, are the most educated religious community surveyed in the United States. Forty percent of Muslims have a college degree or more, compared to 29 percent of Americans overall; 31 percent are full-time students as compared to 10 percent in the general population.” (The Future of Islam, pp. 14-15)

According to published records there are some 1900 mosques in the United States, which run the gamut from makeshift prayer rooms in storefronts and houses to large buildings with adjoining community centers.[1] That is like: one mosque for every 3000 to 4000 congregants (on the average most of these mosques don’t accommodate more than a hundred worshippers). It should not therefore come as a surprise why American Muslims are looking for newer mosques to cater to the spiritual and social needs of its growing community that is economically in a stronger footing today than ever before.

However, no time before since the first couple of years of the George W. Bush era has the Muslim community witnessed so much open hatred and xenophobia hurled against it as it has in recent days. There is no denying that Islamophobia is on the rise in America. Republican candidates and its future presidential aspirants are appealing to fascist attitudes towards Islam and Muslims as a political wedge to gain electoral votes in the coming November elections (2010 and beyond). These hatemongering bigots have turned a local issue like the proposed mosque near ground zero in Manhattan into a national issue. Aided by right-wing political commentators, chauvinist Christian ministers and bloggers, they characterize this Muslim cultural center as a "monument to terrorism." Heated confrontations have also broken out in communities across the country where mosques are proposed for far less hallowed locations. Borrowing pages from the Nazi literature, these promoters of hatred say that they are in a war against Islam “for the survival of America."

Far from the hateful message of these bigots, a two-year study by a group of academics from Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina on American Muslims and terrorism concluded that contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism.

Last Friday, President Barack Obama, using a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan, proclaimed that “as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.”

But who can educate a bigot? Neither the New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s historic speech on Governors Island nor the President’s strong defense on Friday night of the proposed mosque in Manhattan can change their mind.

Xenophobia has no place in any society that takes pride in its civilization –” which owes so much to its immigrants, openness and religious tolerance. Let this Ramadan be an eye-opener to all those caught in the middle to see the beauty of Islam. Efforts to demonize Islam will never succeed. American Muslims will not allow the promoters of hatred to use them as political pawns.