Islam is the fastest growing religion in America, with more than 2.6 million adherents today, according to data from the 2010 census. Despite this rapid rate of growth (in 2000, there were just 1 million Muslims in the US), Islam remains outside the spiritual mainstream of many parts of the country, especially in the predominantly Christian Midwest, where just 1 percent of the population practices it.
Although Muslims only comprise a small minority of Ames’ religious culture, several adherents have been able to celebrate the month of Ramadan since July 20. Ramadan, often called the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, is most remarkable for participants’ daytime fasting and a religion-wide focus on the importance of charity. Iowa State graduate student and Islamic Student Association president Nawaf Alsallami said Ramadan is an integral part of Islam.
“Fasting during Ramadan is a compulsory act of worship on all Muslims who are capable of fasting,” Alsallami said. “Fasting during Ramadan is the fourth pillar of Islam. There are five pillars of Islam: testimony of faith, prayer, alms giving, fasting during Ramadan, and [going on a pilgrimage] to Mecca.”
But for Iowa State junior and Ames High graduate Burak Demirci, Ramadan is a time for personal reflection.
“People not familiar with Ramadan usually think it’s a time Muslims starve themselves,” Demirci, a Turkish-American, said. “But it’s a lot more than not eating during the day. We also abstain from food, anger, temptation and other worldly desires. It’s a month where we are actively involved in charity and prayer.”
Demirci added, “I feel like this month invigorates my soul and brings me a step closer to God.”
While he agreed Ramadan is first and foremost a religious exercise, Alsallami said that the holy month is also an important part of Middle Eastern culture. As a child and teenager in Saudi Arabia, where most of his family still reside, Alsallami fasted each Ramadan in the company of close friends and relatives.
“Thanks to Allah, I never missed fasting any Ramadan since puberty,” Alsallami said. “Puberty is the age where fasting Ramadan becomes compulsory upon a Muslim. Before I reached puberty, my parents used to encourage me with rewards to fast for half a day or more or less in order to practice for compulsory fasting.”
Ramadan 2012 has proved especially challenging for participants around the world due to hot temperatures and dry conditions, and the Midwest is no exception. Because Muslims are not allowed to drink water during the day (although many get up in the wee hours of the morning for sahoor, the first meal of the day that ends at dawn), the iftar meal each evening is a big celebration. Demirci likens iftar meals to another widely celebrated holiday.
“Ramadan is also a great time for families and friends to get together to break bread,” Demirci said. “I was listening to NPR and they called it a straight month of Thanksgivings, which I thought was a pretty good description. A lot of families will invite each other to dinner.”
Whether Islamic Americans participate in Ramadan out of religious obligation, a desire for personal growth, or cultural reasons, both Alsallami and Demirci said each year is a new opportunity to shed bad habits.
“Ramadan teaches me that I’m capable of performing many Islamic acts of worship in the current environment and conditions I live in,” Alsallami said. “I learn that nothing keeps me from getting closer to Allah in regular days of the year except my laziness. Thus, Ramadan encourages me to maintain what I do during it throughout the rest of the year.”
Fasting for a few weeks each year helps Demirci and his family become physically healthier while giving them a chance to reassess their spiritual convictions.
“Ramadan is also a great time to break bad habits,” Demirci said. “For example, my dad quit smoking about six years ago during Ramadan and has not smoked ever since. I am a big coffee drinker and I decided to give up caffeine altogether this month to stay as hydrated as possible. I don’t get my cravings as much now.”
On the evening of August 18, more than 1 billion Muslims around the world will break their fasts for the last time this year and celebrate Eid al-Fitr, or “the feast of the breaking of the fast.” Although each culture has its own Eid al-Fitr traditions, all Muslims typically enjoy large meals surrounded by extended family and friends. Many Muslim Americans, like Alsallami, have smaller get-togethers because they are thousands of miles apart from their extended families.
“Being with family is a wonderful way to spend [Eid al-Fitr],” Alsallami said. “Unfortunately, my parents and siblings are in Saudi Arabia. [I will] take my wife and two kids to eat out in a fancy restaurant, give them gifts, and join other Muslims in celebrating Eid al-Fitr.”
Demirci said he has “yet to spend Ramadan in Turkey” but will call his relatives early Sunday morning to wish them a happy bayram — what Turks call Eid al-Fitr.
“Being able to wake up early and call grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etcetera back in Turkey to wish them a happy bayram [is my favorite Ramadan tradition],” Demirci said. “I am sure there will be a big get-together [with other Turkish-American families in Ames] with a lot of food, music, and gifts.
“It’s one last reminder of everything we should be grateful for.”
For more information on Ramadan in Ames, or Islam in general, visit the Islamic Center of Ames’ website.