Muslims from around Rhode Island discuss the significance of the holy month in the troubled year of 2024

Outdoor Prayer at the State House – Photo by Zane Wolfang

PROVIDENCE — Astronomers from the Majmaah University Astronomy Observatory Department in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, officially observed the new crescent moon on Sunday, March 10 at approximately 1:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

 About five hours later, members of Brown University’s Muslim community assembled at the historic Ladd Observatory in Providence to do their own local moon sighting, as Muslim astronomers have done for over 1,400 years, and confirmed the official start of the month of Ramadan on Monday, March 11.

Ramadan, a month of ritual fasting, prayer, and good deeds, is the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The majority of the world’s 2 billion Muslims completely abstain from all food and drink from dawn until sunset for 30 consecutive days. The rules around fasting, eating, praying and giving charity during Ramadan are determined by Islamic jurisprudence, called fiqh, of which there are four main schools of thought in the Sunni tradition. As one of the five pillars of Islam, the fast is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims, with regulated exceptions for pregnant and nursing women, elderly people, and sick people.

“One of the things about fasting that surprises [non-Muslim] Americans, when I tell folks I am fasting for 16 or 17 hours depending on what time I ate in the morning, they get really surprised when I say, ‘even no water, absolutely nothing,’” said Omar Bah. “Even when you [are a cigarette smoker], you don’t smoke.  No intake, nothing comes in. They get really surprised.”

Refugee Dream Center Entrance – Photo by Zane Wolfang

Bah, who grew up in Gambia, worked as a journalist in his home country before fleeing as a refugee through Senegal to Ghana and then the United States. He now holds a doctorate in psychology and is the founder of the Refugee Dream Center in Providence, which is headquartered behind the Calvary Baptist Church on Broad Street and provides an array of programs and services to support over 3,000 refugees from all over the world who now live in Rhode Island.

Bah said he thinks the Ocean State’s Muslim population is its most diverse faith community, noting that his center works with Muslim refugees from 24 different countries, and the congregation at his mosque, the Islamic Center of Rhode Island’s Masjid al-Kareem in Providence, can trace its membership to even more countries than that. Masjid al-Kareem is Rhode Island’s oldest mosque, dating back to 1982, and most of the people interviewed for this piece identified it as the mosque they most frequently attend.

In the week leading up to Ramadan, Ocean State Stories spoke to Muslim Rhode Islanders from 11 different countries about the meaning and importance of the holy month of Ramadan. They were students, workers, teachers, mothers, refugees, and small business owners with roots in Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and China.

Youssef Akhtarini, who moved from Syria to Providence with his family and opened a bakery café called Aleppo Sweets on Ives Street in a space that was originally a Portuguese social club back in the 1970s, chuckled at the difficulty of the question when asked to quantify how many countries are represented at a typical Friday prayer service at Masjid Al-Kareem. “How many countries? A lot! It’s Pakistan, India, Syria, Morocco, Somalia, Mauritania, a lot of people. Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, a lot of people. Malaysia, Andalusia, some people from China.”

He added that Masjid al-Kareem would hold a celebration for all of the families in the congregation during Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday which celebrates the breaking of the fast and starts the day after Ramadan ends.

Aleppo Sweets – Photo by Zane Wolfang

Qamareddin Yiftali, who used to work for the U.S. government in his native Afghanistan before being evacuated and resettled in Warren, said he and some other members of Rhode Island’s small Afghan community meet regularly at Masjid al-Kareem, not only for prayer but also to keep in touch and share news. Yiftali, who works at Firestone and has a second job as an Uber driver, said “Ramadan is a very holy month. It is a month of peace, of kindness, of forgiveness. In Afghanistan during Ramadan, we feed the poor and we visit our neighbors.”

Yiftali was not the only person Ocean State Stories interviewed to characterize the obligatory Ramadan fast more by the spiritual nourishment it provided than the physical hunger it caused. Sitting in his café with the Lebanese singer Fairuz playing softly in the background, Akhtarini had also talked about the sensation of becoming “clean” and having a “clean heart” due to the fasting and prayer of Ramadan.  At a roundtable discussion at Refugee Dream Center, a woman from Senegal named Oumou Sakho also spoke about being “spiritually cleansed.”

Sakho, a mother of two who first arrived in Rhode Island as a refugee and now works as a reception and placement caseworker at Refugee Dream Center, said, “For me, Ramadan is important because it is a month of spiritual quest and spiritual cleansing, of trying to multiply your good deeds and be the best version of you…not only is fasting required for Muslims, but I personally like it and there are some health benefits as well.”

Sitting next to her was a young man named Dam Lo, recently arrived in Rhode Island from the African nation of Mauritania. Bah said Refugee Dream Center has been working with many Muslim refugees from Mauritania, a country where approximately 90,000 black African people, comprising two percent of the country’s population, are enslaved by a dominant light-skinned Arab class in a hereditary system wherein people are born into lifetime enslavement.

Sakho translated for Dam Lo as he said in French, “Ramadan is a blessed month by Allah…it is an important month for all Muslims, and if you follow all of the requirements of Ramadan, Allah will answer all of your prayers.”  When asked about the physical challenge of fasting every day, he added, “I have been fasting since I was young, and I can [always] feel the difference; I feel lighter, and I feel better when I am fasting.”  

Speaking in her native Arabic, a mother of three boys from Baghdad, Iraq named Wafaa Al Bayati said she felt Ramadan was a unifying experience for all Muslims, explaining, “Ramadan is obligatory for all Muslims. This makes it easier to fast because I know my fellow Muslim is also fasting. Because we are all fasting, it makes the fast lighter to bear.”

Kamar Gure, a young Somalian woman who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, moved to Rhode Island as a teenager and now studies psychology and political science at Rhode Island College, pointed out how Ramadan plays an important role in Islamic community relations by reinforcing empathy for the poor and hungry. She said, “One of the reasons we fast all day from sunrise to sundown is to make us feel what other people who are less fortunate than us feel, like those who don’t have anything to eat. It’s a good way to start over and cleanse yourself spiritually.”

Noorulhaq Sadeqi, a case manager at Refugee Dream Center who received U.S. Government training in Dallas from 2014 – 2016 and served as a military pilot in Afghanistan before being evacuated to the United States in 2021, agreed with Gure.

Noorulhaq Sadeqi – Photo by Zane Wolfang

“The social benefit of Ramadan is this,” said Sadeqi. “You have to feel the situation of other people…For example, the rich people don’t know about the situation of the poor people. The fast is one of the mandatory regulations of Islam; from your body you have to feel the situation of other people. As part of Ramadan, you have to pay zakat [charity]; you have to share your wealth with the poor people. It is supporting the equality of society…Allah pushes people to feel equal with other people and to understand the situation of others.”

Sadeqi further explained the dynamics of charity and wealth during Ramadan. He said in addition to the mandatory zakat donationof 2.5% of one’s annual income to charity, all Muslims who can afford to do so are required to make additional donations to mosques and charities during Ramadan to ensure the poor have food to break their fast at iftar time every evening after sunset.

Sakho added that it was common for the community at the mosque to organize an iftar schedule, with individuals and families volunteering to sponsor each night of the month and different groups in the community sponsoring potluck style dinners on certain nights. Similar arrangements are often made for the daily pre-dawn meal, which is called suhoor and generally features fruits, vegetables, and typical breakfast foods.

Thus, during Ramadan the wealthy are mandated to experience hunger every day, and to redistribute some of their wealth to feed the poor every night. Despite the physical demands of the daily fast, people look forward to the large communal meal in the evening, and the ritualized socialization of the nightly iftar meal – a “breakfast” which is in practice a hearty dinner – lends a fun social atmosphere to the entire month, with people staying up late, visiting with friends and relatives, and eating and drinking special Ramadan treats.

Muslims break their fast every evening after sunset, typically with water and dates, followed by evening prayers, followed by the communal evening meal known as iftar, and then often followed by dessert. Some people then relax and socialize before and after evening prayers, while others choose to congregate at their local mosques every night to recite full sections of the Quran at voluntary extra evening prayer sessions called tarawih, which can be as long as three hours and run late into the night.

Despite the focus on empathy with the hungry, Ramadan and iftar are part of a lot of people’s core childhood memories and life experiences, and for most Muslims, Ramadan evokes strong associations with special sweets and signature dishes. Akhtarini said he will be making what he calls an essential Ramadan pastry for Aleppos Sweets customers: a traditional Syrian sweetbread called ma’arouk which is typically stuffed with date paste, chocolate, or cheese. He will also be selling another dessert called mushabak halabi, which is something like a funnel cake drenched in simple syrup.

Hanane Elharrarri, a Moroccan woman who works for Akhtarini in the kitchen at Aleppo Sweets, was born on the coast of Morocco in a small city called Safi. When asked to name iftar meals that remind her of home, she immediately mentioned harira, a savory tomato-based lentil and chickpea soup, and bastillas, which are savory phyllo dough skillet pies filled with chicken, meat, or fish.

Bah mentioned baobab juice as a childhood Ramadan flavor he has not tasted since leaving Africa, and Sakho, the multilingual caseworker, described a traditional Senegalese dessert called lakh, a sort of pudding made from millet flour and topped with vanilla, cinnamon and sweet yogurt.

Gure, the Somalian college student, said that when she was growing up in Kenya an iced avocado smoothie was a nightly Ramadan snack, and Al Bayani said that in Baghdad, traditional Arabic sweets like baklava and knafeh and a sweet tamarind juice caller tamar hindi were post-iftar favorites.

Nobody in Rhode Island’s Palestinian community who was approached by Ocean State Stories wanted to talk about food. Looming over their preparations for what should be a physically and spiritually restorative month has been the dire humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip, where over 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since last October and the Israeli government continues to simultaneously bomb civilian areas and block most humanitarian aid from reaching the trapped and starving population.

Rally in support of Palestinian women in Burnside Park on March 8 – Photo by Zane Wolfang

Serk Zaza, a Syrian-American grandmother who immigrated to Rhode Island as a child in 1979, briefly broke down in tears as she spoke about Ramadan at a rally in support of Palestinian Women on the evening of Friday, March 8. It was International Women’s Day, and she was dressed in a traditional black and red thobe, standing with her two Palestinian-American granddaughters on the base of the equestrian statue in Providence’s Burnside Park and speaking to a crowd of about 60 people.

Before getting choked up, she said, “What’s breaking my heart right now is [the Palestinians in Gaza] don’t even have anything, not even clean water, to break their fast. But I bet you they will all be fasting because of their sumood [steadfastness] – they stand firm in their religion, in their belief, in their iman [faith].”

Diaspora Palestinians in particular will find it hard to focus on the fast and even harder to enjoy communal iftar meals and Ramadan sweets while their loved ones are literally starving to death in Gaza. What a growing number of organizations and individuals state is a crisis of brutal state violence that has become an intentional campaign of mass starvation has darkened the mood of the entire world as the holy month begins – both Saudi King Salman and American President Biden commented on the suffering of the Palestinian people in their official remarks about the beginning of Ramadan on Sunday.

Imam Abdul-latif Sackor of the Islamic Center of Rhode Island told Ocean State Stories in a text message that the first Friday prayers of Ramadan were held outdoors on the grounds of the Rhode Island Statehouse on March 15 at 1 p.m. in a show of prayerful solidarity with Palestine’s Muslims, and a separate email circulating among Brown University students indicates the prayer was followed by a peaceful demonstration by Muslims and non-Muslims in support of Palestine.