Hadear Kandil, a translator for Voices of NY, is an Egyptian-American, born and raised in Manhattan. She is a political science student in her final semester at Hunter College.
As a Muslim New Yorker, fasting in this city over the years has proved an exercise in restraint. With all that the city has to offer so easily accessible, the humbling act of refusing its pleasures makes Ramadan here a different experience than in Muslim countries, where fasting is done in an environment filled with others doing the same.
But self-denial is not the main point of Ramadan, I have realized in the practice of my faith. If the goal of rehabilitation is to be sober outside of rehab, as Sheikh Omar Suleiman, a popular New Orleans Muslim leader puts it, then the goal of Ramadan is to continue to live a righteous life once the month is over.
This year, disturbed and saddened by the news of the recent deadly shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh gurdwara, and frightened by warnings of attacks on mosques across the country, I found my way to my childhood mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and prayed.
From the side entrance of the 96th Street mosque, the smell of jasmine oil, incense, and carpets floods the nose. The scent drifts in from the hallway, where a small bookshop sells everything from headscarves to pitted dates and prayer rugs. Shoes are stacked away in wall racks to keep the prayer space clear of any street grit.
It was Laylatul Qadr, the anniversary of when the Qur’an was first revealed. Falling on one of the last odd-numbered nights of Ramadan, many Muslims spend the night at their local mosques, performing extra prayers.
Looking at this great architectural presence before me, with the faint night breeze and the calming voice of the imam leading prayer, I couldn’t fathom how xenophobia and intolerance of “the other” in this country has reached such high levels.
Despite a safety advisory for U.S. mosques issued this week by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights organization, the large congregation overflowed into the outside garden. As a representative from the group paid a condolence visit to the Sikh community in Wisconsin, we Manhattan Muslims expressed our solidarity through prayer.
My first memories of the 96th street mosque are from my childhood; through my 7-year-old eyes, the vast space and echoing walls were perfect for running around like outlaws with other Muslim children in this sacred house of worship.
Years later, I find myself watching today’s small tag-players, wondering why their parents can’t quiet them down during prayer. Then I remember that I wasn’t exactly a saint either.
The vast space of the ICC, with its beautiful echoing tile walls, makes up the largest, most important mosque in New York. Its geometric, green-domed façade and towering minaret in the heart of the city provide a splash of color in the midst of drab residential buildings.
Since its establishment in the 1960s, the mosque has maintained a welcoming atmosphere for its intercultural crowd, a true reflection of the city’s diversity. During Ramadan, Muslims of Palestinian, Albanian, Indonesian, and Senegalese backgrounds come together at this mosque, which stretches across Third Avenue. The colorful crowd prays together, fasts, attends sermons and reads the Qur’an. At iftar, the breaking of fast at sunset prayer, the mosque provides meals to 700 to 800 people daily.
The mosque I grew up in has undergone many changes, as has the surrounding community. Sunday school used to consist of small classes inside the mosque focusing on Qur’an recitation and learning Arabic, but has now morphed into a fully functioning Islamic school. With more than twenty classrooms, the school accommodates an expanding Muslim community and more students than ever before.
In addition to classes for young Muslim students, the ICC aims to “create a beautiful Islamic environment for the Muslim community at large,” an assistant imam, Sheikh Chernor Jalloh told me. “And for non-Muslims as well – whoever wants to know about the religion.”
Jalloh, who is originally from Sierra Leone, was educated in Saudi Arabia and is an American citizen.
“We’re trying to bring up a generation, to promote future leaders who are educated and know their religion well,” the soft-spoken imam explained. “Knowing the teachings of Islam has helped Muslims live with others. Islam is not a violent religion– the word ‘Islam’ itself means peace.”
After sunset, the prayer hall on the second floor of the mosque is opened and quickly crowded for congregational taraweeh prayer, exclusively performed during Ramadan. The last ten days of the holy month are the most spiritually significant, and the end of the month is marked with a feast. Eid ul-fitr, literally meaning the holiday of breakfast, indicates beginning the day with a compulsory meal, unlike the past month.
The giving of alms, zakat, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and during Ramadan it is urged on a timely basis, so that the less fortunate can celebrate along with the rest of the world, on the holiday. There are several donation boxes on-site at the ICC, where people can give charity.
“Everything we have is for everybody,” Jalloh said. “We want to share it with everybody. It’s not for a particular sect or race, or a particular tribe.”