Islam, while indeed a personal faith, is more visibly communal–especially during the holy month of Ramadan. And if you plan on experiencing communal Islam only once, attend and iftar dinner at your local masjid. Here, you’ll get a taste of just about everything within the faith physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
Last night was my first communal iftar with my Muslim brothers and sisters this month at the local masjid. Now, before I dive any deeper, let’s review some vocabulary:
Iftar: a meal which breaks the fast after sundown with three dates (or any fruit) and full meal followed by the maghrib prayers during Ramadan.
Ramadan: the ninth and holiest month in Islam. A month of fasting from dawn to sunset, it is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Masjid: proper term for a Islamic center for worship and activity, otherwise known as a “mosque.”
Tarawih: special prayers after the latest prayer of the day, Isha, in which extra supplications are given to Allah and a reading of the Qur’an. This is optional during the month of Ramadan.
Now that we’re clear on the terms, let’s go over my evening at the masjid.
I arrived a little after 8 o’clock. The masjid isn’t that large, so there was plenty of seating. If you plan to attend a larger masjid, show up sometime before 8 to secure seating. Also, in an act of thanks for the imam’s and my Mentor’s invitation to the iftar, I brought a case of bottled water. This may not seem like a big deal but remember, we’ve abstained from food and water all day.
After sunset, everyone eats three dates to officially break the fast and then digs into the meal. The food is cultural-specific, and so your location and social setting determines what you might eat. Last night there was a good variety: salad, fried fish, fruit, flat bread, lasagna, and various deserts.
The atmosphere of the meal–at least at my masjid–is very casual and relaxed. The brothers and sisters ate separately and the meal is centered around conversation. My table had two brothers, I suppose you could say a little more eccentric than the rest, who argued in good spirits about highly mystical elements within Islam. They tried to include me (and everyone else) in their debate but, alhamdulillah (praise to God), the imam noticed my plight and pulled me over to his table with a smile.
There we talked about the project and Islam in general. I was given a chance to explain in greater detail what Project Conversion was all about and was asked a few questions about my impression of Islam so far.
“Discipline,” I said. That could probably sum up the entire month.
Most interesting was one of the imam’s questions to me. He asked, “What do you think Muslims could do to create a better image of Islam in our communities?”
Wow, this man has been a Muslim for years and he’s asking my advice? I was floored. I offered that public visibility, the people seeing the Islamic community doing good works and acting in charity and service–the very way Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) told us to be–was the best way. Everyone at the table agreed and I sighed in relief.
Next, after the muezzin makes the adhan (call to prayer in Arabic), communal maghrib prayers.
Men line up in front/ladies in the back, toe-to-toe, shoulder to shoulder, and perform the prayers together. I love this part the most. My first two times were awkward, but last night just flowed so easy. I cannot recite the whole thing in Arabic, but I recognize the breaks for the movements. Prostrating and moving together in the prayer, drawing out the “Ameen” in one, deep, drawn voice…it’s like your a single entity moving in supplication to God. Indeed, that’s what a Muslim is. The Qur’an says that the whole of creation supplicates to God, everything in nature is a Muslim, and the communal prayer illustrates that with humanity.
Next, tarawih. These are extra prayers which include reading a section of the Qur’an called a juz. It’s a long event, lasting between one to one and half hours, and is lead by a reciter who, like a conductor, orchestrates the movements of us all. A brother standing beside me shared his Qur’an and we followed along together. Let me make this clear: to read a translation of the Qur’an outside of Arabic is no substitute. Hearing this man sing the Qur’an truly nailed the concept of this scripture being a recitation. There’s nothing else like it. This is why many are able to memorize the entire Qur’an, because it was recited, like poetry, to the believers. There are stories of men and women who, upon hearing the sound of the Qur’an, converted on the spot as the words “tickled their ears.” Arabic in this way flows like a long, smooth breath. The language seems effortless and simply rolls off the tongue. Beautiful.
After a few sections of reading, we would prostrate saying “Allahu Akbar” as with normal prayer. I lost count of how many times we did this, but by the end, I felt like I just left a yoga class.
I left the masjid around 10:45 fully charged, even though I’d been up since 4:30 that morning. Few things compare this month to that experience and like I said, if you want to know what communal Islam is like, I implore you, attend a local masjid this month and take part in iftar. You might even go back for more the following week.