Tufail Ahmad explains the background of each of the men in his living room during Iftar, the daily fast-breaking meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“They are all economists and geniuses," Ahmad said. “This is what I told the County Executive: ‘You have such a good human resource available in this county, you use them.’"
Iftar at Tufail Ahmad’s house begins with Dahi Phulki — fried balls of flour in yogurt sauce — and Onion Pakora — crispy onion fritters—with green chutney.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, and the observance marks the period during which Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad received the Qu'ran.
Observant Muslims worldwide fast from sunrise to sunset for 30 days during Ramadan. Even water is forbidden during the fast. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, together with faith, prayer, charity and the Hajj, or holy pilgrimage. Fasting reminds Muslims of the suffering of those less fortunate than them.
At Ahmad’s house, the men break the fast with the Indian appetizers in the dining room. The women socialize at long tables in the kitchen. After a short time, the men move down to the basement to pray.
WINGTIPS AND LOAFERS are piled in the corner of Ahmad’s large basement and the men move to two large bed sheets, spread out and overlapping on the carpeted floor.
An older man is in the front — in Islam, any member of the community can lead the prayer because Muslims believe that all prayer is a direct communication between man and God; there is no intermediary.
In a Muslim tradition marking equality before God, a boy of 10 or 11 prays with Ahmad and his friends as does a man, perhaps in his 30s, who is the hired server for the evening.
The men chant quietly and occasionally touch their brows to the floor. The chants are punctuated by long periods of silence. At the end, each man prays privately, moving at his own pace. Slowly, the prayer dissolves and the men return to their shoes and the celebration ahead.
The guests at Ahmad’s party are one faction of the Islamic population in Montgomery County — they are highly educated non-Arab Muslims, mostly from India and Pakistan, diplomats, doctors and economists. Many are retired from the World Bank. They are wealthy, well-dressed, religious moderates. The political chatter reflects both parties, although a majority seem to support Democrats in this week’s elections.
AHMAD TOUCHES PEOPLE on the forearm as he speaks. His eyes widen slightly as he talks about his oldest son, a graduate of Harvard Business School.
“I am one of the most [politically] active people in my community,” he says.
The sitting room of his house off Glen Road includes pictures of Ahmad and his wife with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY).
“Islam was introduced to this country by 9/11,” he said, adding that is a tragedy for his people. The solution he says is to be more visible as a positive force in the community.
“The Muslims as a class, we are not very much involved in the civic activities of the county,” he said.
Ahmad is "motivating them to come out and participate in the activities of the community. Because if these people come out and go and meet with the common American, Jewish and Christians, they will see they’re all good people. There’s nothing wrong with them.”
“We have started a dialogue with the Jewish community” he said. “Two months ago in this house, we invited five couples, Jewish couples, and we invited five Muslim couples… and we had a nice discussion. Now, they have invited us back on Dec. 1, and we are going to go to their house.”
“We have all elected officials who are Jewish and Christians. We are very friendly with them. We hold fundraisers for them. We raise money for them. We hold their rallies. This is how it will change.”
Without even a break in the rhythm of his sentence, Ahmad, adds, “The food is getting cold. Eat a little bit of food. Some rice and curry.”
IFTAR AT The Islamic Weekend School at Westland Middle School corroborates many of Ahmad’s assertions.
Arab Muslims, non-Arab Muslims, and American and British converts to Islam chatter over humus and lamb Kofta in the lunchroom of Westland, while their children wrestle and giggle and take turns sliding on the slick floor. The school conducts religious classes on Sundays using space rented from Westland.
A group of children has split off from the dinner to play basketball in Westland’s gym.
Yasmeen, a seventh grader at Pyle, says fasting during the day is not so difficult. Watching others eat in the lunch room can be “kind of gross.”
“You try not to curse and do things you’re not supposed to do,” she said. “Not eating food and water is just a reminder,” of others’ suffering and Ramadan’s call for self-control, she said.
The resounding theme of the discussion at the Weekend School Iftar is that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are essentially the same.
“We call the Jews our cousins,” Ahmad said, since both religions originate from Abraham. “So far as Christianity is concerned, so much reverence is given to Jesus Christ.”
“If you look at the three major religions, the similarities are primary. The differences are secondary,” said Bilal Ayyub, a native Palestinian and University of Maryland professor.
One person who understands that is Glenn Sevenson. Glenn was born raised Christian and when he married his wife Mona, who is native Egyptian and Muslim, the couple faced a decision about the course they would set for faith.
“The decision was to stay as a family” Glenn said, and the couple felt that Glenn’s family would be more accepting of his changing religions than Mona’s. “They’re all so close it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to bring our kids up with a religious background,” Glenn said.
FOR MONTHS AFTER 9/11, police cruisers sat in front of the school while it was open due to fear of hate crimes.
But for Muslims, Ramadan is a season of forgiveness and humility.
“I believe that all these religions came in order to provide rules and regulations for living in a community. Just like you have County Council rules and regulations, the traffic laws and this law, that law,” Ahmad says.
With a change of intonation he says, “This is God’s law. How do you treat other people? How do you live? So this is all right.”
“My feeling,” he said. “is that we are all the same. We follow the same thing. We believe in the same thing.”