For the past month, more than one billion Muslims around the world have been in prayer and fasting during the holy observance of Ramadan. There are several million Muslims in the United States…still in the minority compared to Christians…but they have the same opportunity and legal protection as other religions to practice their faith.
Every night during Ramadan, Muslim students at Georgetown University gather to pray and break their day-long fasts together. The fast is broken with simple food -- falafel sandwiches, french fries and soda tonight. Many of the Muslim students are American-born and raised. Others are foreign students, from countries such as Ghana and Turkey. Even after years in the United States, they still feel the difference during Ramadan:
How is it different here than in Turkey?
TURKISH (MALE) STUDENT:
"Well, obviously, in Turkey there's a Muslim majority, and it's a more close-knit environment, and you feel more at home. But here it's different, because you feel closer to your religion and your traditions, since you are away from it. So it's just a different experience."
You feel closer, even though you're so far away from a Muslim country?"
TURKISH (MALE) STUDENT:
"Yes, because I think in many ways, the U.S. is much more tolerant than other countries in the Middle East of different opinions, viewpoints, and as a Muslim I personally feel very comfortable here, and very comfortable practicing Ramadan. And I appreciate the kind of respect and interest that Americans are showing towards Islam."
GHANAIAN (MALE) STUDENT:
"Back home, you know, Ramadan is a time for community bonding. You eat, you break fast with your family every time, and also with your community. That's a big difference. Unlike here, everything seems rushed, we are a minority here, so we don't feel that sense of community, so that's one of the big differences."
Business graduate student Shahed Amanullah, who founded the progressive Muslim web site altmuslim.org, grew up in California, and has never observed Ramadan in his parents' native India.
"It's interesting, because Ramadan has been more of a personal thing and just within the family, I think it has, for me anyway, much more of an introspective aspect to it. There's been many times when I've had to break my fast alone, pray alone and when you're doing that, you know, God's keeping you company. And at least I try to use that opportunity a little bit more to reflect."
To this student, of Pakistani heritage, geography and even culture are irrelevant to Islamic belief:
AMERICAN (FEMALE) STUDENT 1:
"Islam's a religion that can be practiced all over the world, because it's not about where you are, it's all about who you are inside, your personal relationship with God, because you don't need church or a mosque or any institution or any country or government to give you that relationship with God."
Even so, says Shahed Amanullah, observing Ramadan outside the Muslim world can be demanding:
"We have a society that we live in that doesn't conform to Ramadan. And so we have to kind of make it fit. Like myself right now, I'm going to break my fast, then run back to class, do my thing there, then come home, then eat some more. You know, it's different, and a little bit more challenging. I'd like to think I get something special out of it. Maybe someday there will be a critical mass of Muslims in the United States where we can have more communal events, like they do overseas. But for now, it's a personal thing."
A Georgetown University chaplain, Brother Zahir, gives a blessing, before the crowd begins to disperse for more festive meals, or evening prayers in the Muslim prayer center. But two late arrivals, one born to Pakistani immigrants, the other to Bangladeshi parents, have some more thoughts about how Ramadan fits into their American lives.
AMERICAN (FEMALE) STUDENT 2:
"You know, just the general interest in Islam has gone up a lot recently, because an entire generation of Muslims who were born in America for the most part, have grown up their entire lives telling each of their friends every step of the way what they're doing. So by this time, a lot of people have been exposed to either a friend or a coworker who is fasting."
AMERICAN (MALE) STUDENT:
"I'm sort of just a Midwestern kid, since I grew up in Minnesota -- I was born and brought up there. I think I spent all my Ramadans in America, as far as I know. There are a lot of cultural traditions that carry over, like foods and stuff from different ethnicities, but overall broader practices, like fasting and the mindset to be had when fasting, are very universal, whether you're in Egypt or Bangladesh or Minnesota."