Muslims across the world recently celebrated the end of Ramadan, the annual month of fasting. During this month, many people are surprised to know that Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sex from dawn until sunset for an entire month. The inevitable follow-up question is, “Why?”
Many American Muslims don’t even know, and to answer they grasp at ideas that sound right – “Because God told us to,” or “To feel for the needy.” But they often miss an important underlying reason: Ramadan is a time to stop indulging our physical appetites, and a time to protect and purify the senses. It is a time to increase our worship by focusing on self-discipline and God-consciousness, practices familiar to every faith.
It’s difficult to fathom a day without the freedom to satisfy one’s urges, but as a Muslim I see Ramadan as an opportunity to reflect on the Creator of the vast worlds around and within us.
During this month, I reflected on what we as American Muslims are doing to confront ignorance about our faith, and what we can do to educate our neighbors and friends about Islam, especially in light of misleading information presented by the media. I became particularly aware of this during the past Ramadan as I followed the story of American Muslims having to defend their freedom of expression to build a community center in Manhattan.
The debates in the media are overwhelming. The center currently referred to as Park51 has been infamously (and inaccurately) labeled by many as the “Ground Zero Mosque” despite the fact that the proposed center is blocks away from Ground Zero. In fact, Ground Zero cannot be seen from the building site, nor can the site be seen from Ground Zero. In addition to housing a community center and space for worship, the proposed building design includes a September 11th memorial, where all people, regardless of creed, will be encouraged to visit and reflect. The community center embodies multiculturalism and diversity, core American values.
Traveling back in American history, we see that Muslims have been part of the social fabric of this country since its inception. Morocco, an Arab Muslim country, was the first nation to recognize the United States’ independence. Many of the African slaves that built the foundation of this country were Muslims. Moreover, Muslims have contributed to American culture via sports, music, and politics, from boxer Muhammad Ali, to folk singer Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam), to Congressman Keith Ellison.
Just as any faith-based group should be granted the dignity and freedom to open a religious center where they deem appropriate, so should Muslims. While I support the construction of Park51, I continue to be gravely saddened by the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Thousands of families lost loved ones on that day, including American Muslims. They too felt the assault on their country and security. They were among the Americans who were murdered, and also among the firefighters and heroes of that day.
What can we do to remind fellow Americans that Muslims are not the enemy? Public authorities have spoken out on this issue, including Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama. A few months ago, the Muslim Public Affairs Council produced a video featuring top Islamic scholars from around the world, such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, in which they outright condemn acts of terror in the name of Islam. Nevertheless, we must not only speak out, but also turn our eyes inward.
In the Qur’an, our Creator tells us, “Allah (God Almighty) never changes a people’s state until they change what is in themselves” (Qur’an 13:11). As Muslims we’re taught that when we see a calamity we must first look to ourselves to right it. So I ask myself and my fellow Muslims, what have we been doing to educate people about Islam? When are we going to come out of our cocoons to talk to our neighbors and friends about our faith in a way that is welcoming and beautiful? We must reflect on our beloved Prophet who said, “Verily Allah (God Almighty) does not look to your appearances and your wealth but he looks to your hearts and your deeds.” While many of us have adopted the outer forms of our religion we often neglect the inner dimensions of our faith.
As an American Muslim who believes strongly in the Qur’an and the U.S. Constitution, documents that do not contradict but rather complement one another, I stand firm in acknowledging the value of a Muslim community center at the proposed location in Manhattan. I also want to encourage my fellow American Muslims to work on educating ourselves and others about Islam, so that when our friends and colleagues ask about the meaning of Ramadan we offer informed answers. And we need mosques and Islamic centers as venues to facilitate the education of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Nabil Alshurafa serves as the president of the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara.