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Why some Muslims say they're unsure how to celebrate Ramadan this year


The holy month of Ramadan begins today. It's a time when many Muslims worldwide abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk and celebrate together with pre-dawn breakfasts and nightly feasts. But this year, negotiators in the Mideast failed to come up with a deal to stop the fighting in Gaza ahead of the start of Ramadan. And now some Muslims say they're unsure how to celebrate. Here's our colleague, Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Sad times have come during Ramadan before, but this year, the war between Israel and Hamas, with the tens of thousands of lives already lost in Gaza and thousands more facing starvation, is casting a bigger shadow over the celebrations than most can remember. This became clear when I attended Friday prayer at the Mclean Islamic Center in Tysons Corner, Va.


MARTIN: The MIC is a small community mosque outside of Washington, D.C., with worshippers from all backgrounds. Some came to prayer in their work uniforms. The prayer leaders, like Mohammed Jarrah (ph), all have other jobs. In his sermon, he reminded worshippers that Ramadan is not just about giving something up, it's also about giving to others in need. But with the difficulties of getting aid into Gaza, some feel helpless.

MOHAMMED JARRAH: In these holy days, and we're witnessing what's happening to our siblings in Gaza. And not only us - the entire world is watching the starvation of little kids.

MARTIN: After the service, we asked Jarrah what he's noticed about the congregation's preparations for Ramadan this year. He said, it's how people feel.

JARRAH: People are grieving. They're aching. Our community in so much pain. They're coming back to God and asking for guidance. They're thinking that they've done something wrong in their heart, that we're being punished, or these innocents are dying for something somebody did wrong.

MARTIN: That grief was visible on many faces. One worshipper we met was in tears, off and on through the service and in our conversation after. I was mindful that the imam was talking about how it's like a joyful time. Ramadan - it's always - it's a joyful time. People get together, and they see each other and have these big meals. On the other hand, with everything going on, it's a really painful time. Do you feel like other people feel that way - it's like a both-and?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're very conflicted on how much to celebrate and how much to, like, even - you know, should we decorate this year for Ramadan or is that too much? How much is too much?

MARTIN: She said she didn't want to give her name because she feared retaliation at her workplace, but she wanted to speak for those who were suffering.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #!: I have, I think, my - we call iman on my belief system has increased because I see that they're losing everything and yet they're worshiping Allah and thankful to him. And I feel like they're like a walking Quran because this is what people always talk about. They're like examples for us. In some ways I feel guilty because I'm not helping them, but they're helping me so much. They're helping me connect to God.

MARTIN: This feels very emotional for you. This seems like this is a situation that causes you a lot of deep pain.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #!: Yeah, I would say, like, sometimes pain is also, like, sweet in a way. And I hate to say it that way, because I think it's just a reminder of, like, the cycles of life and that things get hard and then they get easy. There is a verse that we always talk about is whenever there is hardship, there's ease. I think it helps me deal with a lot of challenges.

MARTIN: Sultan Chaudhry is the president of the McLean Islamic Center. He said many who pray at this mosque have family in Gaza. Other members are dealing with different concerns.

SULTAN CHAUDHRY: We have members that are reporting that they're feeling pressure or judgment from their institutions, wherever they work at. When somebody's been working somewhere for years, and they've noticed a clear shift when they've been vocal about things, I mean, it's hard to ignore that. We've seen the protests. We've seen hundreds of thousands of people come out to the protests. And we know of individuals that have been apprehended by the FBI because of how they've targeted these protests and threatened the organizers of it. So this is a very real thing. The statistics are there to prove it.

MARTIN: But I can imagine that it's all the more reason why having people have a place that they can come for prayer is comforting.

CHAUDHRY: I think we're going to see record numbers of Muslims that are visiting Islamic centers during this month of Ramadan, because this is where people turn for their spiritual tranquility and their fortitude as well.

MARTIN: Jarrah, who led Friday's prayer session, said he's doing what he can to help people cope.

JARRAH: It's very complex feeling. It's very difficult. My role is to start mobilizing people to vote, to do their civic duty.

MARTIN: How is that message being received?

JARRAH: We learn throughout our life, through difficult times is to come to God - that time for us to stand as a community and do our part, play our role in civic duty. And this is how you can overcome this feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Just outside the prayer hall, Hina Ansari is stopping worshippers headed back to their cars after prayer. She's gathering signatures to get on the ballot in a packed race for Virginia's 10th congressional district.

HINA ANSARI: Everybody has a right to get on the ballot.

MARTIN: The back of her campaign business card states she is Muslim, pro-Palestine and anti-genocide.

ANSARI: When I was running last year, at the end of the election cycle around October, when everything went haywire, you just kept getting inundated with this question of what do you feel? What do you think? And I'm like, I don't know how to answer that. I'm running for a local office. You know, I kept saying, I just want a cease-fire. Now it's evolved a little bit more to be like, we need to get humanitarian aid. We need to, you know, do more.

MARTIN: Some of the community told us they feel that solving the crisis in Gaza through voting is an uphill battle. So youth leader Saad Omar (pd), who led another prayer service at the mosque on Friday, is also encouraging people to turn inward this Ramadan.

SAAD OMAR: I think we have the choice to either live in perpetual guilt or perpetual gratefulness, but also a pedestal of responsibility. For every gift that I have, I now feel like I have to do more with that gift, right? You know, there's a Muslim professor. He says that activism will only succeed when we remember that history is in good hands. I believe that there is there's chaos happening in this horizontal world, but God is watching over. And I think there is meaning to the chaos.


MARTÍNEZ: Michel Martin, reporting from the McLean Islamic Center in Northern Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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