In US, Ramadan gets an American twist

Muslims celebrate the holy month with interfaith iftars, blogs, and fasts even during competition.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Aaliyah Turner used to light up the scoreboards for the Emmanuel College women's basketball team – even while observing the Islamic month of Ramadan. She would go all day without food and water until half time, when the sun set. So during this year's observance, playing a pickup game of basketball with a youth team organized through her mosque seemed to be no big deal.

"If I weren't fasting, I'd feel like I'd probably miss more shots because I'm out of sync," Ms. Turner says.

Muslims in the United States face special challenges in celebrating their holy month, which this year began Sept. 23 and ends Oct. 22. While Muslims in the Islamic world revive the daily rhythms of Ramadan – streets empty at sunset, families congregating for Ramadan dinners, or iftars, and later heading to the markets to drink tea until the wee hours of the morning, comfortable in the knowledge that they can sleep late because others will, too – Muslim-Americans have to adjust Ramadan to the beat of American life.

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In the process, they're creating Ramadan traditions with a distinct American flavor – whether it's fasting in the heat of competition, eating takeout for iftar, or breaking fast with Christians and Jews.

"The Muslim experience in America is one of trying to conform to the way society around us runs," says Shahed Amanullah, who runs zabihah.com, an online guide of restaurants that conform to Islamic dietary restrictions. "In a Muslim country, everybody breaks their fast at the same time, so business conforms to that. But in America, we have to conform to a different schedule."

Omar Ahmad, for example, a technology worker in Silicon Valley, is often still at work at sunset. So he drives to the nearby Yaseen Center mosque in Belmont, where iftar is served, and gets his meal to go. He eats it at his office – a ritual performed by dozens of Muslims who work in Silicon Valley.

"That's when you can tell who all the bachelors are," he jokes, adding that mosque officials don't mind the eat-and-run.

Saira Sufi grew up in Topeka, Kan., accustomed to home-cooked iftars with family, but had little trouble adjusting to breaking her fast when she took a job on Capitol Hill, mainly because she could share the experience with Muslim colleagues. But since taking a job two years ago with the Civil War Preservation Trust, where she is the only Muslim, Ms. Sufi confesses to missing the sense of community. "I love breaking fast with other Muslims, but if you can't, you just accept it."

Rather than lamenting, however, Sufi has turned her solitude into an opportunity to contemplate God – another practice encouraged during Ramadan. "When you're on your own, you reflect a little more," she says.

While Muslim-Americans like Sufi have adjusted Ramadan to American life, more Americans have also become increasingly aware of Ramadan, and have sought to accommodate Muslims. For example, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the prayer hall stays open late to accommodate students praying Taraweeh, special prayers performed only during Ramadan. And many employers are letting Muslim employees slip out at sunset so they can break their fast.

Many Muslim-Americans, meanwhile, are using Ramadan as a chance to reach out to the larger community. Since the 1990s, Sufi's father, Ashraf Sufi, has frequently invited non-Muslim neighbors to his home for iftar. After the 9/11 attacks, the need for interfaith dialogue became more urgent, and Dr. Sufi and his colleagues expanded the iftars through the Islamic Center of Topeka. The interfaith iftars have since become "like a tradition," Sufi says, drawing about 70 people, including Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Bahais.

"If you don't meet people, you stay in your own shell, and that just breeds suspicion," he says.

Indeed, according to the "Fatwa Bank" at IslamOnline.net, a conservative website, Muslims are encouraged to share iftar with non-Muslims. In response to a question from Pakistan, the Fatwa Bank said: "It is an intelligent and impressive idea to organize iftar with non-Muslims."

Along with diversity, the nation's penchants for volunteering and technology have also influenced the way Muslim-Americans observe Ramadan. For example, Nabila Mango, a San Francisco social worker, says the annual iftar she has organized for the past six years for the city's Tenderloin district, draws some 100 volunteers. "The volunteers are really a picture of the Bay area: Muslims, Jews, Christians, straight, gay, everybody," Ms. Mango says.

And Omar Mozaffar, an Islamic studies student at the University of Chicago, has taken up blogging to reflect on the meaning of Ramadan. It also helps overcome a typically American dilemma: "In our society, Muslim or not, we are alienated from each other, and blogging helps people connect and share ideas," he says.

Jamil Abdullah, who coaches a basketball team sponsored by Masjid Al-Quran, a Boston mosque, believes Ramadan in America is too diverse to be labeled an American Ramadan.

"I wouldn't say it's our own unique Ramadan. I would say everybody's Ramadan is unique," he says. "There's not this Ramadan, or that Ramadan. It's just Ramadan, your Ramadan."

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