Observing Ramadan in the Bible Belt
This June, Muslims all over the world will fast from sunrise to sunset and spend more time engaged in worship as part of Ramadan. For KWBU, SakinaHaji reports that in Waco, there's a modest Muslim community that gathers to pray together and break fast, or iftar, every night in Ramadan.
I am celebrating Ramadan away from my family for the first time this year right in the buckle of the Bible belt: Waco, Texas.
It’s unusual to be away from the splendor of large mosques, such as the one I attend back home in India, which fills up each night at sunset. Everyone gathers to pray together and eat a big feast with foods prepared fresh from all over the world. Missing home and the usual Ramadan festivity, I decided to visit the local mosque to spend time with other Muslims.
The Waco mosque is indistinctive, except for a small sign on the fence outside that proclaims “Masjid”, the Arabic word for mosque. The complex is completely fenced in, with a small square of grass and gravel outside for visitors to park. Inside, there is a small common area where worshippers remove their shoes. Shoes are not allowed inside the main prayer area, which is a large carpeted room with a podium in the qiblah. This is where the imam would lead prayer. Imams are to mosques as priests are to churches.
Al Siddiq often leads prayer at the Islamic Center of Waco. He established the center in 1987 after moving away from Pakistan to finish college and spend a few years serving in the army.
“There was only maybe 2 or 3 Muslims here, and we used to pray at my apartment. And then we found this place," Siddiq told me.
Siddiq wanted to have a gathering place for Muslims in Waco. The mosque started out as a small 10 feet by 20 feet room. Later, the community extended it in 1992 as more Muslim families settled in Waco.
The US Religion Census found that within a span of 10 years, the Muslim population in Waco grew by more than 4,500 adherents. This dramatic change from 2000 to 2010 is seen in the involvement at the Waco mosque. Siddiq estimated that more than 400 people regularly visit and worship at his mosque. Although this may be a small population compared to the other religious communities in Waco, the mosque-goers try to be as active in the city as possible.
“We are very involved with local churches, local synagogues, and the local government," Siddiq said of the mosque's involvement. Him and other mosque leaders also try to reach out to people of other faiths during Ramadan by holding an interfaith iftar each year. The mosque has seen a large turnout for the interfaith iftar in past years. But there are only a few people that pray in the mosque daily during Ramadan.
"In America, Ramadan is like more comfortable than in other countries, and more challenging than in other countries"
Sundus Ahmed is a Baylor student that is also spending Ramadan in Waco, away from her family. She visits the mosque every now and then to pray with other Muslims. But she does miss her hometown Houston, where the mosques are much bigger than in Waco.
“The Muslim community here is not as big, so like even going to prayer kind of feels empty cause there’s like two people that come," Ahmed said.
“It’s definitely more intimate, so that’s nice. Like, I go to the mosque and Siddiq uncle and David they all like greet me very nicely, everyone kind of knows each other," Ahmed said of her visits to the mosque.
On the night that I visited, I witnessed a similar intimate gathering. Only two other men were present. There was no loud call to prayer or huge iftar feast like there would be in larger Muslim communities, such as the one back home. The men quietly broke their fasts with the traditional dates and water and offered prayer. Later, we gathered in the common area for a modest dinner.
Dinner consisted of a Pakistani style curry and bread brought earlier in the day by another mosque goer. But the ingredients for all of these dishes are not found so easily in Waco. The nearest South Asian store is in Temple, about 40 miles away. Families will often take turns and drive down there every now and then, bringing back traditional dishes to share with everyone.
“A lot of times, you know, one family carry the entire community," Siddiq said. "They cook for everybody. So they take turns.”
The dinner ended with some fresh watermelon slices to quench our thirst after a long day of fasting. Although Muslims from all over the world are fasting during Ramadan, it can be a very different and even challenging experience to spend the entire month away from the comforts of a large Muslim community, Siddiq says.
“In America, Ramadan is like more comfortable than in other countries, and more challenging than in other countries. Because in other countries everyone is observing the fasting, so you are with the community. But up here you know the restaurants are open and everybody’s eating and you’re the only one who’s -- so, it’s challenge," Siddiq says.
Fasting for 30 days, for roughly 15 hours each day, which is a good 450 challenging hours in the Waco heat does not deter Waco Muslims, who gather to worship at night and continue to go about their daily work while fasting. They are all eagerly awaiting Eid-al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan. There will be an unlimited supply of food, and as you can probably guess, happy Muslims eating their fill after a long month of fasting.