Reflecting on Ramadan on a hot night in a Pennsylvania Town

It’s the Holy Month of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims.  This month commemorates when God revealed the first Revelation to Muhammad in 610 CE. It is also intended to be a daily reminder to Muslims to be in solidarity with those who hunger or thirst. The daily hunger pains and cracked lips, especially during the long hot days of the summer, certainly are a spiritual and physical challenge.  But, like most religious holidays, it is also about gathering in community.

Last week, my wife and I attended an Iftar at a local Islamic center in Pennsylvania. An Iftar is the daily gathering of Muslims to break the fast.  Traditionally, the first food taken are dates and water, in memory of how Muhammad broke his fast.  However, local traditions provide a wide variety of differences in how the month is celebrated.

This particular Muslim community is very typical of those scattered across the United States.  It is a mixture of different ethnic communities: African-American Muslims (who make up the single largest community of American Muslims), some Anglo converts, and a wide variety of what are called “Immigrant Muslims”:  they or their families immigrated to the U.S. within the past one hundred years or so (just like the German, Norwegians and Swedish Lutherans back in the 18th and 19th centuries). Among the “Immigrant Muslims” there is a wide variety of different ethnic backgrounds: Pakistani, Arabs from all over the 22 nations of the Arab Middle East, West Africans, Afghans, a few Turks and a couple of Malay.

My wife and I were greeted by our hosts who invited us to the Iftar.  It was close to the time for the call to prayer, so we went into the mosque – men in one entrance and women in another.  I entered the prayer hall and was greeted quite eagerly by one of the members who owned a local restaurant in the area.  We exchanged pleasantries and then he ushered me to the center of the prayer hall where a tarp was laid over the hall rug.  On top of the tarp were plates of dates and watermelon, along with several jugs of lemonade and iced tea.  He invited me to help myself and fill a plate and then to wait for the moment to break the fast.

Most Muslim communities that are constructed of different ethnic groups have to negotiate faith practices among the different traditions. There is a long standing debate among Muslims as to whether one should eat first and then pray, or pray and then eat, when breaking the fast.  Given that this community had brought food into the middle of the prayer hall it is more than likely that there was a disagreement and then a compromise between the different “factions.” They would eat first, but at least the food would be taken in the prayer hall so that they could pray as quickly as possible.  Having served several congregations, I know all too well the reality of negotiating communal faith practices!

The muezzin signaled the time to partake of the food.  I ate my watermelon and drank my iced tea (very American), while I talked with a math professor from one of the local Pennsylvania state schools.  We talked about higher education in the U.S. these days.

Then it was time for prayer.  The men gathered in straight lines, facing the mihrab, the marker that pointed the direction toward Mecca. They began their recitation of the Fatihah, the first chapter of the Qur’an, and then began their prostrations. In this case, the collection of different ethnic backgrounds, standing side to side, shoulder to shoulder, was truly an expression of the world wide Ummah. The ideal of Islam is that profession of faith has no color or nationality but pure piety. To see these men side by side, white and black, Asian and African, was a good respite from the troubling discussions centered on race in America during the George Zimmerman trial.

After the prayers, my initial host invited me to out of the prayer hall to find my shoes that had been left outside in the entryway and to get in line for the evening’s meal.  Several well-to-do families who owned businesses in town took turns paying for the meal for the community. They usually arranged for a local caterer to bring in the food each night. The ethnic background of the family normally determined the food that was to be served.  Several members sheepishly told me that some nights at the mosque were more crowded than others depending on what type of food was to be served.  The mosque tended to be packed when the Lebanese and Syrians hosted – being known for their exquisite cuisine.  I was also quietly told that there were specific evenings when there were fewer people who would come out to pray. I imagine the food simply wasn’t as good. (It reminded me of the whispers among students at the seminary who will show up in droves to hear particular professors preach, but not others.  This is the reality of religious practices in human community.)

This evening’s meal was Moroccan.  Not the favorite of some, but delicious to me!  I made my way through the line, piled my plate and entered the large tent that had been erected on the property for these nightly gatherings.

The ideal Ummah that I had witnessed in prayer quickly dissolved into the reality of clumps of segregated groups: Africans sitting together in one section, the Afghans in their traditional garb in another, African Americans at one table and the Arabs at another. Of course, the women segregated on the other side of the tent.  I saw my wife who was already seated, eating and talking with a number of veiled women, one with her child on her lap.

Having lived in the Middle East, I naturally made my way to the table with the Arab Americans and sat down next to a computer engineer from a large national firm and across from the owner of a local Motel. We exchanged pleasantries and began sharing our stories. They knew that I was a professor from the Lutheran Seminary.  Ahmed asked me a very good question, “Please, can you tell me what an Evangelical Lutheran is? I know who Evangelicals are but I don’t know what an Evangelical Lutheran is.  Are you like other ‘Evangelicals’?”

It was an excellent question.  North American “Evangelicals” are known throughout the Muslim world as having a particular political ideology about American foreign policy and are usually socially conservative. It was good opportunity to talk about what euongelion (“Good News”) means and what that has to do with Lutherans.

After everyone had eaten their fill, tea was offered up and down the table.  Several Egyptian Americans began discussing the latest events in Egypt.  “I am faloul,” the one said (a supporter of the new interim President Adly Mansour).  “You are Ikhwan (a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood)? The two began a debate over politics in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. I enjoyed the banter, but you can imagine the animated gestures taking place.

Finally, another man leaned over, “Come on guys, no politics at the table.  It’s Ramadan after all!”

Yes, Ramadan: the mixture of personal and familial piety, communal and gendered realities, gathered under makeshift tent in the middle of a Pennsylvania town during the heat of the summer.  This Evangelical Lutheran was very grateful for this experience of Islam and America. It’s the Holy Month of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims.  This month commemorates when God revealed the first Revelation to Muhammad in 610 CE. It is also  intended to be a daily reminder to Muslims to be in solidarity with those who hunger or thirst. The daily hunger pains and cracked lips, especially during the long hot days of the summer, certainly are a spiritual and physical challenge.  But, like most religious holidays, it is also about gathering in community.

Last week, my wife and I attended an Iftar at a local Islamic center in Philadelphia. An Iftar is the daily gathering of Muslims to break the fast.  Traditionally, the first food taken are dates and water, in memory of how Muhammad broke his fast.  However, local traditions provide a wide variety of differences in how the month is celebrated.

This particular Muslim community is very typical of those scattered across the United States.  It is a mixture of different ethnic communities: African-American Muslims (who make up the single largest community of American Muslims), some Anglo converts, and a wide variety of what are called “Immigrant Muslims”:  they or their families immigrated to the U.S. within the past one hundred years or so (just like the German, Norwegians and Swedish Lutherans back in the 18th and 19th centuries).  Among the “Immigrant Muslims” there is a wide variety of different ethnic backgrounds: Pakistani, Arabs from all over the 22 nations of the Arab Middle East, West Africans, Afghans, a few Turks and a couple of Malay.

My wife and I were greeted by our hosts who invited us to the Iftar.  It was close to the time for the call to prayer, so we went into the mosque – men in one entrance and women in another.  I entered the prayer hall and was greeted quite eagerly by one of the members who owned a local restaurant in the area.  We exchanged pleasantries and then he ushered me to the center of the prayer hall where a tarp was laid over the hall rug.  On top of the tarp were plates of dates and watermelon, along with several jugs of lemonade and iced tea.  He invited me to help myself and fill a plate and then to wait for the moment to break the fast.

Most Muslim communities that are constructed of different ethnic groups have to negotiate faith practices among the different traditions. There is a long standing debate among Muslims as to whether one should eat first and then pray, or pray and then eat, when breaking the fast.  Given that this community had brought food into the middle of the prayer hall it is more than likely that there was a disagreement and then a compromise between the different “factions.” They would eat first, but at least the food would be taken in the prayer hall so that they could pray as quickly as possible.  Having served several congregations, I know all too well the reality of negotiating communal faith practices!

The muezzin signaled the time to partake of the food.  I ate my watermelon and drank my iced tea (very American), while I talked with a math professor from one of the local Pennsylvania state schools.  We talked about higher education in the U.S. these days.

Then it was time for prayer.  The men gathered in straight lines, facing the mihrab, the marker that pointed the direction toward Mecca. They began their recitation of the Fatihah, the first chapter of the Qur’an, and then began their prostrations. In this case, the collection of different ethnic backgrounds, standing side to side, shoulder to shoulder, was truly an expression of the world wide Ummah. The ideal of Islam is that profession of faith has no color or nationality but pure piety. To see these men side by side, white and black, Asian and African, was a good respite from the troubling discussions centered on race in America during the George Zimmerman trial.

After the prayers, my initial host invited me to out [d6] of the prayer hall to find my shoes that had been left outside in the entryway and to get in line for the evening’s meal.  Several well-to-do families who owned businesses in town took turns paying for the meal for the community. They usually arranged for a local caterer to bring in the food each night. The ethnic background of the family normally determined the food that was to be served.  Several members sheepishly told me that some nights at the mosque were more crowded than others depending on what type of food was to be served.  The mosque tended to be packed when the Lebanese and Syrians hosted – being known for their exquisite cuisine.  I was also quietly told that there were specific evenings when there were fewer people who would come out to pray. I imagine the food simply wasn’t as good. (It reminded me of the whispers among students at the seminary who will show up in droves to hear particular professors preach, but not others.  This is the reality of religious practices in human community.)

This evening’s meal was Moroccan.  Not the favorite of some, but delicious to me!  I made my way through the line, piled my plate and entered the large tent that had been erected on the property for these nightly gatherings.

The ideal Ummah that I had witnessed in prayer quickly dissolved into the reality of clumps of segregated groups: Africans sitting together in one section, the Afghans in their traditional garb in another, African Americans at one table and the Arabs at another. Of course, the women segregated on the other side of the tent.  I saw my wife who was already seated, eating and talking with a number of veiled women, one with her child on her lap.

Having lived in the Middle East, I naturally made my way to the table with the Arab Americans and sat down next to a computer engineer from a large national firm and across from the owner of a local Motel. We exchanged pleasantries and began sharing our stories. They knew that I was a professor from the Lutheran Seminary.  Ahmed asked me a very good question, “Please, can you tell me what an Evangelical Lutheran is? I know who Evangelicals are but I don’t know what an Evangelical Lutheran is.  Are you like other ‘Evangelicals’?”

It was an excellent question.  North American “Evangelicals” are known throughout the Muslim world as having a particular political ideology about American foreign policy and are usually socially conservative. It was good opportunity to talk about what euongelion (“Good News”) means and what that has to do with Lutherans.

After everyone had eaten their fill, tea was offered up and down the table.  Several Egyptian Americans began discussing the latest events in Egypt.  “I am faloul,” the one said (a supporter of the new interim President Adly Mansour).  “You are Ikhwan (a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood)? The two began a debate over politics in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. I enjoyed the banter, but you can imagine the animated gestures taking place.

Finally, another man leaned over, “Come on guys, no politics at the table.  It’s Ramadan after all!”

Yes, Ramadan: the mixture of personal piety, communal and gendered realities gathered under makeshift tent in the middle of a Pennsylvania town during the heat of the summer.  This Evangelical Lutheran was very grateful for this experience of Islam and America.