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Ramadan: The Holy Month

By Joshua Brustein

Residents along Steinway Street in Astoria are preparing for a shift in their daily routine next month, as the Islamic month of Ramadan approaches. Clustered around the Al-Iman mosque on Steinway and Astoria Boulevard, Middle Eastern groceries, bookstores, clothing shops, restaurants and cafes give this area its distinctive style. When the Ramadan begins in early November, say local residents, the Muslim and Middle Eastern character of the neighborhood will become even more pronounced.

"As it is in the Middle East, people try to bring the same flavor to the neighborhood," says Sharif El-Fouly, a regular customer of the Egyptian café on Steinway, who lives and owns a handbag factory in the area. Evenings are especially busy on the streets, he says, as people walk to the mosque for evening prayers or visit with neighbors. The event’s significance to neighborhood residents affects the rhythm of life "dramatically."

The month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, marks God’s delivery of the holy Koran to the prophet Muhammad. Adult Muslims observe this event by fasting during daylight hours for the entirety of the month. Besides food, adherents abstain from drinking liquids, smoking, having sexual relations, losing their tempers, and lying. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, its exact position on the solar calendar is only known the night before the month begins. This year it will begin sometime around November 5th. It is seen as a time of unity, both to local areas and to the larger Islamic community.

According to a 2000 survey of religious participation in America by the Glenmary Research Center, there are 331,045 Muslims in in the New York metro area. Africans, Pakistanis, Bagladeshis, Indians, Bosnians, and Indonesians worship alongside people from the Middle East, native New Yorkers, and Hispanic converts to Islam. The members of 96th Street Islamic Center, the largest mosque in the city, represent this diversity. The mosque looks to celebrate this diversity during Ramadan by providing a place where people from disparate places around the globe can celebrate their common bond. The mosque has contracted several restaurants, serving Egyptian, Pakistani, and African food, to cater the nightly iftar meal, and worshipers from around the world will participate in nightly prayer sessions, lectures, and songs.

But even though they do the best they can, there’s no place like home, says Omar Abu-namous, the mosque’s imam. Abu-namous, a Palestinian, doesn’t think that an American Ramadan can ever quite compare to the feeling that one gets from being in a Muslim country during the holiday.

"You don’t find Ramadan outside the mosque [here], only inside the mosque. In our countries in the Middle East you will find Ramadan being celebrated…everywhere," he says. "When you are in a Muslim country everybody is celebrating Ramadan and all of the mosques are resounding with the call to prayer…The celebrations are in every corner of the city."

But to Khadijah Muhammad, a life long resident of the New York area who attends Al Iman mosque, the major theme of Ramadan is consistent no matter where one fasts. Making a personal sacrifice to God is the bread and butter of the observance, according to Muhammad. She looks forward to Ramadan as a time of personal contemplation, and finds the fast more cleansing than difficult.

"For the first few days your body is getting used to it," she says. "So maybe you’re a little itchy or irritable. You’re not used to it yet, and you might get tired a little. Then when you get used to it, you don’t want it to end. For me, I have a hard time going back to normal."

The end of the fast, which this year will fall a few days after Thanksgiving, is called the Eid Al-Fitr. This celebration is marked by public prayer, which sometimes goes on for several days. During this time, Muslims thank God for giving them the strength to fast through the month.

But during this Ramadan, many Muslims have more on their mind than their faith. The current political situation is proving to be a strain on Muslim-Americans. For their part, many are trying to push politics to the back burner and focus on the holiday

"We are not as joyous as we are in other years, of course, because of concerns in the Middle East, and the expected war on Iraq" says Abu-namous. "But this feeling will not keep us from doing our duty to God."

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