A community in Ramadan, a family for Eid

All rights reserved @GovornorQuinnFlickr

Last Sunday, an estimated 15,000-20,000 people piled into Toyota Park, the home of our local MLS soccer team, to celebrate Eid, the holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In the wake of recent attacks against Muslims in the waning days of the month in the US (8 attacks in 11 days), including 2 mosque attacks and the desecration of a Muslim grave site in the Chicagoland area, Muslim leaders invited Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to attend the Eid prayer.

In stark contrast to Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh (R), who’d recently told his constituents at a town hall meeting that Muslims “are trying to kill Americans every week” and whose district is home to 8 mosques, Gov. Quinn attended the Eid prayer ceremony and signed a religious tolerance bill afterward. I am proud of Gov. Quinn for working with his Muslim constituents and publicly demonstrating that Illinois will not tolerate faith-based discrimination. I’m even more proud of my Chicago Muslim community for their political maturation – two decades ago, many people in that community believed that participating in the American political process was haram and discouraged fellow Muslims from voting in local and national elections. It seems amazing now that the same community would fill Toyota Park and welcome the highest elected official in our state.

However, I didn’t celebrate with the congregants of the mosque I grew up attending; I didn’t offer my Eid prayer in a massive soccer field with the Governor of Illinois – I prayed with a few dozen Muslims, most of whom I’d known only for a few months. We offered our Eid prayers together, in a park near Chicago’s magnificent Lake Michigan and enjoyed a truly international potluck brunch under the shade of the trees. I’d made a conscious decision, as my mother went abroad at the beginning of Ramadan, that I would seek a new community with whom I would experience the holy month.

My friends and I regularly attended lectures together, joined community iftars and stayed up all night to enjoy pancakes and waffles at 24-hour diners for suhoor, forging strong bonds – the bonds that can only be forged with people who don’t blink an eye at the suggestion to drive up to the Loop for Taraweeh (nightly prayers Sunni Muslims offer during Ramadan) at a city mosque after a community iftar at the south side of Chicago highlighting interfaith cooperation in the aftermath of the desecration of a local Muslim gravesite. Friends who would drive back to the south side for an all-night, all-women’s prayer-a-thon and decide to return to the city after dawn, to watch the sun rising along the Lake Shore and offer prayers to the One who allowed us to spend His holy month together. How could I not celebrate Eid with these lovely people – longtime friends and recent, Muslims new and old; blacks, whites, Arabs, South Asians, Latinos and East Asian; converts and lifers?

Throughout Ramadan, my roommate and I deliberately cultivated a community that wasn’t ethnically or geographically based. We hosted an iftar inviting our friends, new and old – many of whom were converts to Islam or recent transplants to Chicago. We appropriated some of our mothers’ dishes, learned that Sudanese hibiscus juice beats out soda among Muslims breaking their fast and started our own Ramadan tradition – creating ever-fancier trifles to present to our friends and neighbors. Though I’m partial to the sea salt caramel/pretzel trifle, the Oreo/halal marshmallow trifle won a lot of accolades at an iftar hosted by our friend, a new convert who was celebrating Ramadan for the first time and kindly allowed the local public radio station to document her experience.

Copyright Ehab Ghoneim

In the last month, there were a series of anti-Muslim incidents at mosques around the country and ugly words were uttered by elected officials in my state. 6 Sikh lives were taken in a horrific massacre by  a white supremacist in a Milwaukee suburb.  A mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground. Racist ads against Palestinians were funded by Pamela Geller’s hate organization in San Francisco. In the face this religious bigotry, the interfaith community has stepped up. A Christian student helped to start a fund to rebuild the Joplin mosque. Jewish synagogues hosted Muslim neighbors for food and prayer. Interfaith movements swelled up to honor the Sikh fallen and to condemn the climate of hate that has been tacitly allowed to fester by some of our nation’s politicians. Other elected officials – including the President of the United States – took the opportunity to host iftars for their constituents and reiterate their support for a pluralistic society. In the last two years, the rise of Islamophobia dominated my Ramadan experience. These types of stories – negative and positive – would have occupied my mind while I was fasting; I would have spent hours compiling articles and videos to share on my blog and through my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I would have wanted to hear firsthand what my Governor has to say about opposing racism and bigotry.

All my life I’ve had a global concept of community. Being the child of immigrants innately widened my consciousness of the different narratives of which I’m a part. Stories of discrimination from around the world hurt me personally. And the grandeur of the Olympics is often the highlight of my quadrennial. In the decade since the attacks of 9/11, I’ve worked with Muslim communities all over the United States, offering interfaith seminars and trainings on civic engagement. But this Ramadan, I made the conscious decision to try to focus on cultivating my relationships with the people around me. It wasn’t a perfect experiment. I still kept up with the news; though I missed most of the Olympics, I still somehow managed to read several articles about the racial politics around Gabrielle Douglas’s hair. And I learned that my temper could be very, very short when I’m deprived of food, caffeine and water for 16 hours a day.

“And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with love like that. It lights up the sky.” – Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

Two days before Eid, my friends and I decided to watch the sun rise at Lake Michigan. We arrived at the lakefront about an hour before the sun rose; the lights of the Adler Planetarium could not decrease the beauty of the night, which was bejeweled by stars and the planet Venus. Our conversation was peppered with exclamations of how beautiful and quiet the sky and sea were, how lucky we were to live in Chicago, how we hoped that Chicago’s Muslims would celebrate Eid on the same day, irrespective of whether they followed moonsighting or calculations. We recognized that our Ramadan friendship, cemented by praying together at sunrise along our lake, had bonded us for life.

This Ramadan, though I distanced myself from the news of the world somewhat, and spent my days and nights with the same group of people throughout the month, I felt my sense of community and family grow larger. The two young South Asian men who waved and mimed “Happy Ramadan” to us outside a diner in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood became my community. The beautiful people – the recent converts and lifelong Muslims, the Chicago transplants and the international visitors – with whom I spent many nights praying, eating, holding intense discussions and laughing became my family. My roommate, a fabulady I’ve known since before she was born, has always been my sister.

As night descended upon us on Eid, my friends and I found ourselves sitting on a large prayer mat at the north side of Lake Michigan. The night sky was clear, the stars were twinkling subtly against Chicago’s bright lights. We’d just finished the night prayer. My friends and I were sharing our narratives of how Islam, and also, our local and national culture, has shaped our lives. I didn’t need to celebrate with 15,000 people that morning. I didn’t need to watch the Governor sign a bill on religious tolerance. I spent the day celebrating with the right people, my people.

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Hey I just came here to pray and this is crazy, but is there space for me?

I’d like to share with you a story from the reign of Umar, the second Caliph of Islam (may God be pleased with him) which carries powerful lessons today.

One of the wives of Umar bin Al-Khattab used to offer the Fajr and the Isha prayers in congregation in the Mosque. She was asked why she had come out for the prayer as she knew that Umar disliked it, and he has great ghaira (self-respect). She replied, “What prevents him from stopping me from this act?” The other replied, “The statement of Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) : ‘Do not stop Allah’s women-slave from going to Allah’s Mosques’ prevents him.” Sahih Bukhari

It appears that the only reason the Caliph Umar allowed his wife to offer her prayers at a mosque is because he did not want to go against the plainly expressed wishes of our beloved Prophet (PBUH).

In most Western Muslim communities today, women are not prevented from offering their prayers in mosques. Sometimes, they are even encouraged to attend, especially during Friday prayers and the nightly Taraweeh prayers that Sunni Muslims offer during the holy month of Ramadan. But it often seems to me that the Prophetic tradition invoked in the story above is the only safety net women have. Too many mosques have inadequate spaces for female congregants; others have the space, but keep the doors locked. Still others have adequate spaces for women to pray, but think of the women’s areas as the space to be kept aside for late-arriving men to use, because God forbid the men be sent down to a basement along with the women and children.

Some prominent organizations and religious leaders have begun to address this issue; the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA; Sunni Islam’s largest umbrella organization in North America) published a booklet identifying the problems women face in North American mosques and offering workable solutions for largely middle and upper-middle class national Muslim communities. The problem for most American Muslim communities isn’t a lack of funds; it’s a lack of awareness on the part of male decision-makers about the experiences of women in mosques.

Which is how you get the $5m mosque near my home, with marble flooring, fancy technology, gorgeous landscaping with a fountain around it – and even a mezzanine for women (though we pray in the multipurpose basement for Fridays and Taraweeh), but no rooms built for babysitting or for women who come with small children. Or, you get the awesomely hilarious glass panels at another multi-million dollar mosque. This mosque has one of the best prayer spaces for women in the Chicago area, but the interior design caters to the male experience, right down to the glass panels on the ladies mezzanine floor engraved with “Allah” and “Muhammad” that face outward. As I joked to my friend, the only people who can read the panels are the men downstairs who look upward trying to get a glimpse of the ladies.

The actions of conscientious Muslim leaders haven’t stopped more radical acts happening, including movements for female-led mixed gender prayers and the perhaps less radical, but no less controversial, forced desegregation of men’s prayer spaces by women activists. Women activists who are upset at their inadequate prayer spaces span a wide ideological spectrum: some are extremely liberal/progressive, while others are conservative. Still, others would self-describe as “moderate,” hoping to embody the “middle way” of Islam. While I understand and sympathize with the frustrations of those who advocate for a female imamate, I believe that a more pressing problem that most American Muslim women face is simply access to equal and comfortable prayer space in our mosques.

Last night I heard a disturbing story from a dear friend of mine, who is studying to be a Muslim chaplain. After a week of praying Taraweeh in a cramped and over heated basement, with some bug-infested areas smelling like mildew, she asked her male relatives what their praying experience was like. Upon hearing that they had air conditioning and extra space in one of the 3 levels of the mosque, my friend and a few other young women decided to pray behind the men on the 2nd floor. For their trouble, they were yelled at and were threatened that the mosque would call the police if they didn’t leave the men’s area. In the end, these brave women prayed outside on the grass (where they could see that the all-male first and second floors were not full).

There are two routes that American Muslim women could take in order to address the problem of inadequate space in mosques. We could take the Chinese route and develop their own all-female mosques, with female imams and the feelings of empowerment that comes with being completely free to be who you are as a woman in your own place of worship, where female leadership is encouraged and nurtured. It’s an intoxicating idea, but a more appropriate choice might be to take the Turkish route and work with male community leaders to ensure that our houses of worship are equally welcoming to men, women and children. That women’s spaces are designed with the same care and attention to comfort and beauty as men’s spaces.

This route will only work if women activists have male allies within the Muslim community. I believe that when more men of conscience, such as ISNA president Imam Mohamed Magid – a strong supporter of women’s rights in American Muslim insitutions – hear and see our stories, they will understand our plight and add their voices to ours. Last year, the men behind the cutting edge, Ramadan-based 30 Mosques project began to amplify the experiences of their sisters in faith, catalyzing a controversial, yet robust and much-needed debate. To that end, I’m currently collecting photos of women’s and men’s Muslim prayer spaces to publish in my Tumblr Side Entrance. If you would like to contribute, please submit your photos to hijabulousinthecity@gmail.com.

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Welcoming Ramadan

The Muslim day begins at night. Following a lunar calendar means that we welcome the new day when the sun sets. This year Ramadan, for those who follow calculations, will begin after sunset on Thursday July 19. I plan to welcome the holy month that night by attending Taraweeh, the nightly communal prayers that most Sunni Muslims perform during Ramadan. On Friday, before the sun begins to rise, I will start my fast: abstaining from food and drink – and caffeine – until the sun sets again, some 16 hours later. Ramadan is the spiritual highlight of my year and I’m excited to begin the time-bending cycle of fasting, careful eating and extra praying again this year. You’d be surprised by how quickly the day passes, yet how blessed the hours feel!

This year, my mother – the center of our family and chef extraordinaire – will be out of the country for most of the blessed month. My Ramadan schedule, for the first time in a long time, is mine to develop and maintain. My Ramadan experience this year will take the shape I mold it in, so I have set three Ramadan Resolutions to work on…

  • Read the entire Quran in Arabic
  • Eat healthy & stay hydrated
  • Visit a different mosque for Friday prayers

…and have committed to attending a few iftars, along with attending my nightly Taraweeh ritual prayers.

I’ve been reflecting on what Ramadan will mean as I break fast, pray and celebrate Eid family-less this year. It’s not a feeling of loneliness; rather I feel even more compelled than in years past to reflect the intense divine connection that warms me during Ramadan in my relationships. Especially my relationships with the Holy Quran, with my Ramadan Roommate, my neighbors and my friends.

Muslims believe that Ramadan is the month that the Quran was first revealed to our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The holiest night of Islam, the Night of Power is in the last 10 days. To honor this month, Muslims open their hearts wider to welcome the Quran. We open our homes and welcome family, friends and coworkers into their lives for dinner parties. Mosques open all night, welcoming prostrating worshippers sending our prayers heavenward. In Chicago, our Jewish sisters and brothers welcome us for an Iftar in the Synagogue.

I think about Ramadan in three parts. In the first 10 days, Muslims begin to welcome the month in their hearts, welcome the sounds of the Quran being read aloud, welcome their friends and family in their homes and welcome the newness of the holy month. In the second 10 days, new habits start to form, hunger pains recede and Quran and prayer become constant. The last 10 days are often spent in deep prayer and contemplation of the Night of Power, but also in preparation for the Eid holiday.

Fasting is one of the most intimate of ibadat, the religious rituals Muslims are obliged to fulfill; it’s not always physically obvious that someone is fasting and it’s not necessarily something to be done in a group, such as communal prayers. In the US, this has meant that many Muslim communities have manifested this ibada outward – often in the form of community service. All over the country, Muslims , like the young activists at Muslims Without Borders, welcome interfaith partners to learn about our shared values while building stronger communities together. In this way, we welcome our neighbors to hear and share in our American Muslim narrative.

I will not stay away from my regular social media platforms, or this blog, during Ramadan; rather I will incorporate them into my Ramadan experiences. Along with my regular news updates, I will publish Ramadan Linksies highlighting special Ramadan stories, inspiring personal narratives, tips for staying healthy and interfaith cooperation.

I am looking forward to welcoming Quran recitation into my days, welcoming my friends to my dinner table, welcoming the night with my prostrations. I’m looking forward to welcoming my friends, especially converts to Islam (new and old), recent Chicago transplants and others in my “family-less” boat to share in my Ramadan experience. I am looking forward to welcoming the month of Ramadan and sharing its blessings.

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