The ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan, begins this year at sundown, September 1st. The observance marks the time 1400 years ago when Muslims believe the words of their holy book, the Koran, were revealed to the prophet Mohammed. Ramadan in America, as it is elsewhere in the world, is a time of fasting, prayer and reflection. Each year during this holy month, Muslims of diverse backgrounds and national origins come together to worship and celebrate their faith. For many American Muslims, Ramadan also provides an opportunity to share the culture and traditions of their various homelands with their non-Muslim American friends.
There are, by various estimates, between six million and eight million Muslims living in the United States. Most are immigrants from around the world. Many are native-born Americans who have converted to Islam.
Like followers of the faith everywhere, American Muslims observe Ramadan with traditional rituals. Families shop at Halal meat stores, prepare Iftar meals to break their dawn-to-sundown fasts with family and friends. They pray together. Some Muslim Americans shop for Ramadan sweets at specialty food stores.
"Religious-wise, it is the same. But back home we have more people around us," says Amina Tambouch, an American Muslim from Senegal. "Here we have to go to work (during) Ramadan and leave late, so it is hard to get together."
Tambouch says from time to time she does get together with friends during Ramadan "Every one will cook some food and bring it. We pray together, we talk about the Muslim religion, and we teach each other." At work she and her Muslim colleagues will pray together at lunchtime.
During Ramadan, Islamic centers and mosques across the country are crowded with Muslim Americans breaking their fasts, praying and reading the Koran. Imam Abdulla Khouj, director of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., says the diversity in the U.S. Muslim population gives Ramadan in America a special flavor.
"You see the flags here, people from everywhere in the world setting on one table on the floor, join together to break the fast, to exchange talk and to feel that they have accomplished something that day, which is fasting to Allah (God)."
Imam Khouj believes that recent Ramadan greetings by American presidents have helped to raise Americans' awareness of Islam, and to promote the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion. He says inviting non-Muslims to the nightly Iftar dinners is also an occasion to educate them about the Islamic faith. "We have a lot of groups coming to the center, especially in the month of Ramadan," he says, "and some of them come and break the fast with us."
Jane Sisi, an American Muslim from Guinea, says that during Ramadan she often talks to her non-Muslim friends about Islam. "I believe strongly that Muslim religion is the religion to bring people together, so Ramadan is a good occasion to talk about that, to bring all the people together and to bring peace."
Muslims in the United States face special challenges in celebrating the holy month. They have to adjust Ramadan observances to the beat of American life. That's especially hard for Muslim students, says Palestinian-American Mohamed Tafesh. "It is more challenging because they go to school and they have to do all of the activities, sport activities in high school, and they go to lunch where every body is eating and they are fasting."
Even as Muslim-Americans adapt their Ramadan rituals to the secular rhythms of American life, more non-Muslim Americans are becoming aware of Ramadan, and its important place among the unique traditions of Islam.