Hungry for Ramadan

ramadan_sweets.jpgOne of the unique pleasures of Ramadan is the tradition of specially prepared Ramadan sweets that originate from a host of different cultures and nationalities across the Muslim world. These Ramadan sweets and pastries help create a festive mood around the iftar table, and the best thing about Ramadan in America is that we get to sample them all. Just as the Muslim American community is a melting pot of diverse cultures, our Ramadan plates are adorned with treats from every corner of the Muslim world.
My parents immigrated from South Asia, so our house was filled with Ramadan treats from their homeland – seviyan (roasted noodles served in a sugary, milky sauce), fruit chaat (cut up fruits served with masala spices & black pepper), and of course, Rooh Afza (a sweet, rose-flavored milk drink).
But the mosque I attended while growing up was very multicultural, so I got a chance to experience the Ramadan treats of the parents of many of my friends. Kunafa (shredded, sweetened phyllo dough) from Syria, katayef (kind of like a fried sweet pancake) and umm ali (a decadent bread pudding) from Egypt, raisin cookies from Iran, and güllaç (phyllo again, with pomegranates and walnuts) from Turkey. There are tenuous cultural links between all of these desserts, but they each retain a cultural uniqueness that all can appreciate.

children_eid.jpgNow that Ramadan is slowly drawing to a close, take a few moments to think about the ones not fasting — the little ones who sneak a date from the iftar table at sunset while everyone is frantically getting ready to eat, the ones who are usually asleep in the morning while the adults wake up to eat their pre-dawn meal and pray, the ones that unintentionally taunt the fasting grownups with ice cream cones and juice drinks. That’s right – what about the children?
For much of the month, children are merely bystanders, exempt from the fasting until they reach puberty and, perhaps, many of the optional prayers (though they are encouraged to learn). But kids are kids, they see how religious festivals and holidays in other religions often emphasize the “fun stuff” – the Christmas trees and presents, the Hanukkah dreidels and songs, the colorful dances of Holi.
But Ramadan does have its share of “fun stuff” too, centered around the 3 day holiday of Eid, expected in a few days time. Eid in a predominantly Muslim country is as colorful and vibrant as the Christmas season is here in America. Over here, we’re still working on ways to create a similar atmosphere for Muslim Americans and their children — and we’re not quite there yet.

suhoor_pic.jpgEach morning during Ramadan is the suhoor (the pre-dawn meal), the private antithesis to the usually congregational and public iftar at the end of the day.  It is the fasting Muslim’s daily opportunity to set the tone for the day, both physically and spiritually.  When done right, the suhoor  allows you to properly focus on your daily responsibilities as well as your religious ones, and when done wrong (or not at all), it just plain makes your day miserable.
There are few opportunities to be truly alone with yourself (and by extension, God) than the early morning hours before the break of dawn, when the fajr prayer normally takes place.  The world outside is still, and having just woken up, your mind is clear and in the best shape for communication with the Divine.  Ideally, if you can leave enough time for both prayer and eating before dawn, it is an enriching experience.  Even those who don’t have the time to do this normally are making up for it in this last ten days of Ramadan, when extra prayers are recommended and the “Night of Power” (said to be on one of the odd-numbered days in the last third of the month) awaits.

fastathon.jpgI’ve often struggled with the question of how best to share my faith with those who are not Muslim.  While I have spent many years being involved in interfaith work, there was something about it that seemed at arms-length or academic.  I believe that educating people about Islam and Muslims requires a more nuanced approach than lectures or brochures.  But I also feel that it is important to bring some tangible benefit to the community at large.
One of my personal goals is that I want to help create an society where Americans feel that this country is better off having Muslims here than not.  Right now, it’s hard to get over the impression that Muslim Americans are a net liability.  But how do we get to that promised land?
As with many innovative ideas coming out of the Muslim American community, one great answer has come from young Muslims.  In 2002, Muslim students at the University of Tennesee, Knoxville came up with a unique way to share the meaning of Ramadan with their non-Muslim peers and raise money for local homeless charities.  The idea was to have people sign up to fast for a day, and for local businesses to sponsor them at $1 for each person fasting.

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