Although Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States today, it's still a minority religion. According to unofficial estimates, there are about four million Muslims living and working in America. Many are converts. But many more are immigrants and the children of immigrants who came to America from predominantly Islamic nations. It's often clear to these immigrants that they're no longer living in a country where Muslims are the majority. During the holy month of Ramadan, American Muslims are particularly aware of their minority status.
For Muslims, the month of Ramadan is a time for prayer, contemplation, and sacrifice. Healthy adults are expected to fast during the day, abstaining not just from food, but also from water. But the moment the sun sets, Muslims are required to break their fast, regardless of where they are or what they may be doing. And according to Sumara Rhajua, a software engineer living in Washington, D.C., breaking the fast in America can sometimes be complicated.
"I usually take Metro to work. In Metro, you're not supposed to eat or drink, and my breaking of the fast would be at the time while I'm sitting in the train," she said. "And I have to. So I would just sneak in a date, and the person sitting next to me would always be giving me looks. So, I would tell the person, you know, I'm fasting. Did you know it's the month of Ramadan? So some people would take interest and want to know more. And others wouldn't care."
That's not to say that maintaining the Ramadan fast in America is necessarily any easier. It's common in many countries where Muslims are the majority for businesses to reduce their daytime hours, so that people can fast at home, in a slightly less labor-intensive environment. But that doesn't happen in America, where Muslims make up less than two percent of the population. And that can make maintaining the fast very challenging, says Laeeq Ahmad, a doctor who must perform surgeries that have been scheduled for him, even if he's gone all day without food or water.
"The other difficulty that you encounter is 'salat'. Where do you say the prayers? And that can be tough, too. So you got to make do," he explained. "And fortunately, as Muslims, you're allowed to pray anywhere. It doesn't have to be a mosque. It doesn't have to be a special place. I think the majority of people are very considerate. But every now and then, you do find somebody that looks at it as a strange behavior, and gives you the eye. But that's part of life."
What's also part of life is the fact that American Muslims don't enjoy an aspect of "Ramadan etiquette" that's commonplace in most predominantly Islamic countries. There, non-Muslims are expected to eat privately during Ramadan, so as not to tempt those who are fasting. In America, though, nearly everyone eats openly. But Imam Shamshad Nasir, who heads the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission in suburban Washington, D.C., says in many respects, this gives American Muslims an added opportunity to grow closer to God.
"Of course, when somebody is observing the fast, and another person is eating, he will be disturbed in some manner," Imam Nasir explained. "But this is the beauty of Islam, on the other hand, that if you don't eat at that time, and you are controlling yourself because of God, he will have more reward for that. So I can say in another manner that I will have in this society more reward, while other people are not observing the fast. And it is our bravery, and more courage, than other places where everybody is observing the fast, everybody's the same, nothing comes in front of you."
Imam Shamshad says their minority status also gives American Muslims a greater understanding of what it means to be Muslim… because they're often asked to explain their behavior during Ramadan to their non-Muslim friends and colleagues. But even when he isn't observing Islam's holiest holiday, Amjad Chadry says he's highly aware of his Islamic identity. In fact, he says he has a greater understanding of that identity in America, than he did when he was living in Pakistan.
"Why? Because, you know, this is a very open society, and the menu open to a person is very wide. It's not like, OK, you go outside, and the whole society is doing that, so you cannot, you know, you cannot go far away from your limits," he said. "But I'm coming to a country where it is open. I don't have any pressure. And so I start thinking in terms of OK, now I have to take care of myself."
Because the Islamic calendar follows the cycles of the moon, Ramadan begins and ends on a different day each year. Sometimes the holiday is in August; other times, it's in December. This year, Ramadan coincides with the American celebration of Thanksgiving, a holiday that's set aside to be with family and friends and to eat. Eating on Thanksgiving Day is a time-honored American tradition that's been embraced by immigrants of all faiths, including the Islamic one.
And American Muslims say there's no reason this Thanksgiving should be any different. After all, they're still allowed to cook throughout the day. And if they need someone to test the food before sundown, to see if it needs more seasoning, they'll just call upon their children who aren't required to observe the Ramadan fast.