San Luis Obispo Muslims on Friday celebrated one of the holiest nights of the year with food, prayer and squealing children.
Ramadan — a month of fasting and reflection — will end Tuesday. Members of the Mosque of Nasreen have gathered weekly for a community iftar, or breaking of the fast, throughout Ramadan, but the final few nights are especially important.
The month of piety marks the time when the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s central figure, was given the Quran, the religion’s holy text. The Quran’s revelation is thought to have occurred sometime during the last 10 days of Ramadan; Mosque of Nasreen members celebrated Friday, the 27th night of the holiday.
During Ramadan, Muslims who are able are required to fast from dawn to sunset. Prayer at scheduled times throughout the day is also very important.
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Mus’ab Abdalla, Mosque of Nasreen’s imam, or prayer leader, said many Muslims view the night as a time when God or angels come down to earth. He said some would even spend the night in prayer at the mosque.
Abdalla said there are multiple reasons for fasting during Ramadan. It allows worshippers to be more reflective and aware while also giving them empathy for those who must go without food.
“We starve the body to feed our soul,” he said.
Friday’s dinner brought many important elements of the holiday together: Community members laid out dinner and then went into a separate room to pray. A young boy unfazed by the solemnity of prayer ran in between the rows of worshippers, soccer ball in hand.
We starve the body to feed our soul.
Mus’ab Abdalla, Mosque of Nasreen’s imam
After prayer came food. Attendees filled their plates with salad, rice dishes, pizza and even cupcakes. Those breaking their fast started with dates and water — no liquids are allowed during the day.
When the meal was finished, some of the devout planned to go to the mosque for more prayer.
One Ramadan, different meanings
Fasting is a tradition many religions observe. As Abdalla pointed out, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus — figures important in Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all fasted as a form of worship. Self-sacrifice and fasting is also part of Buddhism, Abdalla said.
Though Muslims observe Ramadan in similar ways, the tradition means something different to everyone. Young and old alike value the sense of community Ramadan brings about, especially at the mosque’s weekly dinners.
Amina Assal, 16, said it’s sometimes hard to feel connected to an Islamic community in the United States, where Muslims make up less than 1 percent of all religious adherents, according to Pew Research Center data. Assal said Ramadan brings her closer to other members of her religion.
“(Fasting) is easier when you’re surrounded by people in your community,” said Aiysha Mahmood, 19. “It doesn’t make it as hard as it should be.”
When asked about the tougher parts of Ramadan, the girls brought up a uniquely 21st-century problem: seeing food pictures on Instagram, a photo-sharing social media site.
Yunus Guelbahar, 9, and brothers Mamoud and Hamza Deif, ages 9 and 14, respectively, said fasting wasn’t too difficult for them. For the younger boys, doing good deeds, which is encouraged during Ramadan, meant grabbing a slice of pizza for a friend in exchange for a cupcake.
For Hisham Assal, who said he’d been observing Ramadan for decades, the tradition is about endurance and facing hardship.
“At the end, for me, it’s more of a sense of achievement,” he said.
Sharing Islam with others
Introducing Ramadan to those outside the faith has become even more important in recent months. Some politicians, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, have encouraged suspicion of Muslims, monitoring of mosques and banning immigrants who practice the religion in the wake of terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, Florida.
Most recently, a suicide truck bomb in downtown Baghdad early Sunday killed at least 115 people and wounded nearly 200 in an attack claimed by the Islamic State. It was the deadliest attack in Iraq in about a year and among the worst single bombings in more than a decade, according to The Associated Press.
“This is a month of peace, a month of nonviolence, withholding even the slightest amount of anger,” Abdalla said, reflecting on the recent bombing. “For them to do that shows more and exploits them more that they’re really not following Islam.”
Violence has no religion, he added, and above all, there’s no religion that validates the killing of children.
“We just want to take our religion back,” Abdalla said.
He noted that he will be intensifying efforts to encourage Muslims to not insulate themselves and to reach out to the community.
He has personally tried to combat suggestions of targeting Muslims and banning Muslim immigrants by vlogging, or video blogging, on YouTube throughout Ramadan. The videos follow Abdalla through his daily life and provide explanations of Ramadan and Muslim traditions.
“It’s an attempt to express Islam,” he said. “It’s transparency.”
Despite the angry rhetoric that’s been directed at Muslims, Abdalla views it as an opportunity to tell others about Islam’s true, nonviolent nature.
“Honestly, I think Trump did us a favor,” Abdalla said. “... He’s passed us the mic and put us on the stage.”
News assistant Danielle Ames contributed to this report.