I was listening to the Friday lecture at my local mosque this week. The Imam made his closing remarks by asking us to pray for a Muslim brother’s father who had died back home.
When he said, “back home,” none of us had to imagine where that might be.
“Back home” is an ethereal place that holds a different meaning for every immigrant. During my four years in East Africa, I was blessed to see many aspects of Ramadan that I wasn’t privy to in America. Living in a Muslim country is far different from living in a secular one, but this difference becomes especially distinct during Ramadan.
One of the main differences between spending Ramadan in a Muslim country and here in America is that there are no restaurants open during Ramadan back home. Same thing goes for cafes, street food vendors and the like. That’s because everyone in the community is fasting (or at least, they should be). It’s socially irresponsible for a restaurateur to make an already difficult fast more strenuous by forcing the smell of sautéed goat meat onto hungry passersby. An open secret about fasting is that you don’t really notice how hungry you are until you see or smell prepared food.
Of course, the reason that we Muslims fast every year is not merely to deprive our bodies of food, water and other physical desires. We fast to increase our consciousness of and gratitude for Allah the Exalted. Food is something we take for granted and often rely upon for more than just sustenance; at some point, it becomes an emotional crutch. When that crutch is removed, we remember that Allah is the only One we should rely upon for our physical, spiritual and emotional needs. And so, we are taught to give thanks with every breaking of the fast.
Another thing that you’ll notice back home is that mosques are crowded from sunup to sundown. There are lectures, Quran recital competitions and people napping to escape the heat outside. This activity isn’t limited to the inside of the mosque, however, because there are loudspeakers atop every mosque back home. This allows one to hear the Athan (call to prayer) numerous times a day. There is also a special Athan during Ramadan that wakes the neighborhood up in time for the pre-dawn meal (known as Suhūr). Another benefit of the loudspeakers is that you can hear religious lectures from the comfort of your home.
In 2016, I once walked to the market for fresh fruit while I was still in Somalia. It so happened that every mosque that I passed that day was holding a religious lecture. The loudspeakers atop each minaret allowed me to listen to snippets of the lectures as I made my way into town. My lecture continued unabated as I passed out of earshot of one loudspeaker and walked into that of another.
Here in the States, mosques take a lot more work to maintain. It is only through a serious community effort that a mosque in America can exist as a place where worshippers go to recharge their spiritual batteries. There are legal issues to contend with, boards of operation to organize, fundraising efforts to be undertaken. There also needs to be a strong emphasis on the mosque as a hub for religious knowledge that the surrounding community can access with ease. Without such a concerted effort, mosques can start to feel empty in the West. In general, it’s much more difficult to practice your religion in a place that does not easily welcome it. This increased degree of difficulty requires a commensurate effort from places of worship to help the pious upkeep their sense of spirituality. The positive side of this difficulty is that the Ḥasanāt (credit for good deeds) are increased for a believer who maintains their discipline in the face of isolation and temptation.
For the last 10 days of Ramadan, it is a recommended practice to perform Iʿtikāf: secluding oneself inside the mosque. The goal of Iʿtikāf is to distance yourself from worldly affairs, increase your acts of worship and to strengthen your connection to Allah. This is usually done by reading the Quran, praying supererogatory (optional) prayers, and seeking religious knowledge more than ever before.
Here in the West, you can see why something like Iʿtikāf would be hard to do — our schedules are almost unnecessarily busy. We have obligations which require us to drive vast distances every day, such as work, school, daycare, etc. There is no shortage of worldly matters asking us to meet them head on so that we are not overrun by bills, bills, bills. Back home, employers are flexible in shifting working hours during the blessed month so that believers can make the best use of their time.
Another great thing about working in an all-Muslim environment is that everyone around you is fasting. It is a virtue of piety that we Muslims are expected to fast not just from food and other physical desires, but from all things which displease Allah. Talking negatively about or dealing harshly with other people is one of the worst sins one can commit. Therefore, controlling one’s tongue is of paramount importance during a month when we strive to minimize our sins and maximize our virtuous deeds. I noticed a palpable difference back home in how co-workers treated each other during Ramadan as opposed to the rest of the year. Simply put: everyone was nice.
Here in America, we live in a pluralistic society. Everyone is free to believe in what they believe or lack thereof. This is one of the things that I love about this country: we can be whoever we wish to be (at least on a theoretical level). The downside of pluralism is that not everyone knows about their neighbors’ cultural and religious customs. What this means for the fasting Muslim is that you risk walking through a landmine of unpredictable responses whenever you leave your home.
As I was walking out of prayer in Minneapolis the other night, I noticed a security guard standing outside our mosque. I’d seen him a few times before, but I’d never really noticed him. I assumed he worked for one of the nearby parking lots. Then, when I saw that he was Somali and hadn’t been praying inside with us, I knew that he was there to protect the congregation. That really struck a chord with me because I never once feared for my safety during nightly Ramadan prayers back home. Sadly (and quite facetiously), the mainstream media would have you believe that many Muslim countries are bastions for homegrown terror — especially Somalia. You would think that in this age of technology and instant communication, many of these negative stereotypes would have long since been dispelled. The reality of a place is often far different from the sensationalist depictions of it half a world away.
As recent news would show, the rise of Islamophobic attacks in America has steadily increased from verbal threats to physical assaults. There was the repeated defacing of property at Muslim Association of Puget Sound in Redmond two years ago. There was the mosque set on fire in Bellevue last January, and another two that were burned to the ground in Texas around the same time. Most egregious of all was the pre-dawn bombing of a mosque in Minnesota in August 2017.
If these aren’t acts of homegrown terrorism against a marginalized community, I don’t know what is. The American media discourse is largely negative when it comes to Islam (the religion) and Muslims (its adherents). Because of this black-and-white media coverage, there is an unfortunate amount of ignorance surrounding the faith of 1.8 billion people in the world. In a country that prides itself on the freedom to worship, it’s sad that many Muslim Americans do not feel entitled to the same peace of mind that other Americans do. If we did, there would be no need for security guards posted outside of Mosques during our nightly prayers.