WASHINGTON - As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins on June 28, Muslim Americans from different backgrounds across the United States are gathering in mosques and homes to break their dawn-to-dusk fast, perform congregational night prayers, and help the poor.
"We try to make people feel like they are in any Muslim country and belong to a Muslim community,” said Imam Abdulla Khouj, president of the Islamic Center in Washington D.C. “We offer the meal to break their fast. We have more than 600 people, males and females, their children, and families. They break their fast and pray with us.”
After the Iftar meal at sundown, Muslim families perform the special nightly prayer.
"Ramadan nightly prayer is an expression of devotion and seeking forgiveness," said Said Aly, a Muslim-American physician. "Each night we finish reciting one chapter of the holy Koran, so by the end of the month, we will complete the 30 chapters of the holy book," Aly said.
Abdulla Mahroum recites the holy Koran at Dar Al-Hijra Islamic Center in Virginia. He came to the U.S. during Ramadan of 2003 on a tour to recite the Koran in several mosques around the country. But the need for his rare talent granted him a permanent residency in the U.S.
“Especially in Ramadan, Muslim Americans are attracted to Islamic centers which offer the best Koran reciters and I was well received and I began training young Muslim Americans to recite the best way they could,” he said.
Regardless of their country of origin, American Muslims observe Ramadan with a set of traditional rituals. Families shop at Halal meat stores, prepare Iftar meals to break their fast with family and friends and pray together.
However Shala Haroun, an American Muslim from Kashmir, misses the big family gathering in Ramadan.
"Ramadan back home is a lot more fun, there is a lot more family, a bigger Indian community and you get your whole family together, while here you are with just a couple of your family," said Haroun.
Muslim Americans have a long working day and are surrounded by non-fasting colleagues, but for Mohamed Ibrahim that is not the real challenge.
“I have to fast because it is my religious duty, so it does not matter what everybody else is doing.”
Imam Hassan Qazwini directs the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan where many Muslims have made their homes in recent decades.
"Every night, after the nightly prayers, the Islamic Center will hold a special session to of recite the holy Koran; explain the interpretation of the Koran, as well as some other Islamic lectures."
He said as many as 1,000 people go to daily evening prayers at the Islamic Center of America during Ramadan, and there is a focus on American-born Muslim Americans.
"We will have a very specialized program catered for the English-speaking youth, because they will be the ambassadors of Islam to non-Muslims.” Qazwini said.
The sessions are also streamed online to reach a wider audience.
For Muslim American groups, Ramadan has served as an annual opportunity to educate the American public about the holidays of Muslims and the Islamic faith.
Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said Ramadan is a chance to foster interfaith dialogue.
“We send out information relating to Ramadan to non-Muslim constituency and friends as well as we organize programs in which we speak about Ramadan. We do this in conjunction with not only Islamic centers but even with groups and interfaith groups as well, so this has been a highly successful campaign."
The educational events include holding open houses at local mosques and Islamic centers; public lectures on Ramadan, interfaith Iftar dinners and TV ads reminding all Americans that Muslims are an integral part of U.S. society.
Since the early 1990s, American presidents have issued Ramadan greetings each year to the more 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.
Imam Khouj believes the presidential greetings have helped to raise awareness among Americans about Ramadan.
"The president of a great country acknowledges the fact that Muslims are fasting and shares with them their feelings, and at the same time makes American Muslims feel that they are welcomed in this country," said Khouj.