The boisterous sounds of children laughing and playing filled the Islamic Center of Manhattan last Saturday evening, as the sun began its descent beneath the horizon. Local Muslim families and community members gathered there to share in the Iftar, a religious observance during the holy month of Ramadan.
Beginning on June 17 this year and ending July 17, Ramadan is considered the time when God is closest to humanity, according to the Muslim faith. It signifies the first time the angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to Muhammad.
During the annual celebration of Ramadan, from sunrise to sunset, Muslims are required to fast and refrain from engaging in sinful behavior, such as smoking, lying and fighting.
“It is meant to make us a modest person,” said Haydory Akbar Ahmed, treasurer of the Islamic Center and graduate student in economics. “We eat no food, no water. We make ourselves humble before God.”
Ahmed greeted newcomers as they walked inside.
“Assalamu Alaikum Warahmatu Allah Wabarakatoh,” he said, a phrase in Arabic meaning, “Peace be upon you and God’s mercy and blessings.”
He was met with the reply, “Wa alaikum assalam,” or “Peace be upon you as well.”
The Iftar marks sunset and the end of the day when the faithful are allowed to break their fast.
“During the weekday, people are busy with work and school, so they observe the Iftar at home,” Ahmed said. “But during the weekend, we offer a community Iftar for everyone to join.”
As more people arrived, activity in the kitchen quickened as volunteers hustled to prepare food for more than 100 people. Tables were filled with various conversations about families, news and even soccer.
Bowls of whole dates, freshly shipped in from Arizona, served as table centerpieces along with freshly brewed Arabic coffee, a light, mild coffee.
Abdullah Asiri, graduate student in special education, is originally from Saudi Arabia. He said the celebration of the Iftar in the states has a different feeling than back home.
“At this time, everywhere you can smell the food,” Asiri said. “No one is walking on the street, no one. Everyone is with their family.”
Asiri said that at least once a month, extended family would celebrate together.
“Everyone gets together and shares food,” Asiri said. “Everyone has to share. It’s a time for joking, eating and praying together.”
Notice was given over the loudspeaker that the sun had finally set. Asiri began pouring coffee for others at the table as the dates were eaten.
“When Muhammad ended his fasting, he would prefer to eat dates,” Asiri said. “It’s not something you have to do, but it’s traditional.”
A light soup made with spinach and corn was also served just before the Maghrib prayer, one of the five daily prayers practiced by Muslims. Members from Bangladesh prepared the cuisine from their home country, offering others a chance to try foods they had never eaten before.
As the call to prayer was made, Asiri hurriedly finished his soup in order to join others who had already left the table.
Separate rows of the faithful formed up in the mosque, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, with no one person edging forward closer than the other. Rich and poor, young and old, it signified that all were equal in front of God.
As prayer ended, a line for food service formed. Mohammed Al Tamimi, of Manhattan, serves as a member of the Islamic Center’s board of directors. As he sat down to eat with others, he said that Ramadan reminds Muslims to spend more time thinking about how fortunate they are.
“It’s a process that allows you to take a break, both physically and mentally,” Al Tamimi said. “It’s helps you to appreciate the food a lot more and understand the less fortunate. What we give up is for the Lord, to help bring us closer to the Lord.”
Al Tamimi said Ramadan is also a time for people to renew themselves spiritually.
“For someone like me who is over 30, it gives us a chance to recharge our souls,” he said. “We believe the Lord is close to us during this time.”
Al Tamimi, a former smoker, said the passage of Ramadan is what helped him finally quit the habit.
“I used to smoke,” he said. “I smoked for 20 years. Why would I do that? I knew it was bad for me. By denying ourselves these things, we learn how to strengthen our souls. We control the body through the mind, which is connected to the soul. It does shake you in a way.”
Much as it began, the sound of children playing marked the end of the service. More than an hour after it started, families and friends departed the center, saying their goodbyes, “Assalamu Alaikum. Peace be upon you.”