The sun had set, about 200 people had arrived, and evening prayers were about to start.
Members of the Bait-ur-Rehman Mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland, welcomed visitors Thursday evening for an iftar dinner during the holiest time in the Islamic calendar, when the faithful observe Ramadan fasting from sunrise to sunset.
Muslims, Christians, Jews, Quakers, Buddhists, and Sikhs were in the room listening to each other and sharing the meaning of fasting.
One by one they spoke. First came a pastor, a Quaker faith leader, then Gary Allen, a Christian and former local politician, who took the stage to share the meaning of fasting to him and his congregation. But he also shared something else.
It was Allen’s first time visiting a mosque.
"In fact, many people are like me: ignorant of the Muslim community,” Allen said.
He said a few months ago members of his church shared "some of the anger and frustration and hate that they had in their hearts about other faith traditions.
"And as I listened to that I thought, 'Oh my God, what can we do about something like that?’”
The solution, Allen said, was to work to establish a series of interfaith dialogues, now set to begin in the fall.
“So we can bring together people of different faith traditions ... which would help us understand what we share in common,” he said.
Understanding each other
Soon after the speakers, Imam Hammad Ahmad opened the floor to questions. Again the idea was to “help each other understand each other and gain more knowledge.”
One attendee stood right away and asked, “We’ve seen that people are killing each other, killing individuals … What is jihad in Islam?”
Imam Ahmad repeated the question to those in the room who could not hear. He said jihad is not a holy war.
“It’s not any kind of battle to slay a human being [or] to force anybody to convert to Islam. … It’s none of those things. At its core level, jihad is in Islam is the struggle that all of us have in proving ourselves as human beings and becoming better worshipers of god,” he said.
Joan Liversidge, a faith leader from the Quaker Friends House, took the microphone to follow-up, reiterating the need to reach out and talk about differences and similarities.
Some of the guests came in with other members of their congregations. Others heard from their Muslim friends and decided to attend for the first time. There even were those who, though not Muslims, visit the mosque every year.
“I think personally we need to find more ways to do what we’re doing here tonight. ...Anytime that we can do anything like [this] is going to further our community, further our democracy here in this country,” Liversidge said.
At 8:37 p.m., there was a call to prayer.
‘It’s time to eat’
Mohamad Deen, a 73-year-old Olney, Maryland, resident, is a Muslim born in Guyana, then British Guiana. His grandparents were from India and emigrated to South America. But crime, corruption and lack of opportunities led Deen to move with his family to the United States in 1976.
“I love the U.S. I loved Guiana too. … I realized the U.S. had more opportunities” he said.
He became a mechanic and eventually settled in the suburbs of Washington. Deen says Muslims break their fast with dates and water.
“Eat, eat,” he said. “Take some home.”
The polished white mosque sits on the corner of Good Hope Road and Briggs Chaney Road and is surrounded by at least 10 Christian congregations.
Deen leads the way upstairs to the prayer room. Men and women pray separately. About 15 visitors went to the men’s hall and sat in the back observing the religious practice.
“Now it’s time to eat dinner.”
Dinner consisted of traditional Pakistani dishes that included butter chicken, spinach with potatoes, daal (a lentil soup), rice with vegetables, naan bread and salad.
When asked about being a Muslim, and people being prejudiced against him or his religion, Deen said it was all about equality and mutual understanding.
“I am proud to say I am a Muslim. I am a human being just like you. I have the same feelings. … I respect everybody. That’s how I look at that.”