At the conclusion of the evening Muslim prayer, Father Fred Huntington stood barefoot in the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church shaking the hands of dozens of young Muslims and perfecting the Islamic greeting “Salam Aleykum.”
He was one of more than 50 members of the multicultural community group Kaleidoscope who came to the Falls Church mosque last Wednesday to gain a greater understanding of Islam and break the Ramadan fast. Huntington, an Episcopal priest at two churches in Alexandria, Grace Episcopal and St. Mark's Episcopal, said he was “overwhelmed” by the generous reception he received from the worshipers.
“We want to foster inter-faith learning and share our mutual interests,” said Huntington, who had visited mosques in Jerusalem but had not previously attended one in Virginia. “It is so important in times of conflict to learn more about one another.”
Members of the mosque explained the importance of Ramadan and other tenets of Islam to Kaleidoscope members, while they shared the traditional iftar meal that concludes the day’s fast. Over steaming plates of lamb, yellow rice, chickpeas and humus, mosque leaders and state delegates encouraged greater communication between the area’s religious communities and urged Muslims to vote in November’s election.
During Ramadan, which began Oct. 5 and lasts 30 days, Muslims are not permitted to eat or drink during daylight hours and are supposed to refrain from smoking or having sexual relations. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims believe it is the time God revealed the first verses of the Qu’ran to the prophet Muhammad.
Ramadan is an intense period of fasting, worshipping and contemplation for Muslims, or “boot camp for the believer,” as Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam at Dar Al-Hijrah and organizer of the inter-faith dinner with Kaleidoscope, describes it. More than 3,000 families, from Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, attend services at the mosque.
“It is a month of physical and mental discipline,” said Faizul Khan, imam at the Islamic Society Washington Area. “The spiritual benefits of Ramadan are immense.”
It is imperative that Muslims in America invite their non-Muslim neighbors and community leaders into mosques during Ramadan to improve relations and create individual bonds, said Abdul-Malik.
“The mosque will no longer be a foreign place but a place of familiarity and good feelings,” Abdul-Malik said. “I hope the people here will get an organic feeling of the religion and make friends with others.”
Many of the non-Muslims at the dinner said they came to gain a greater knowledge of a religion that is misunderstood by many Americans. Jennifer Escotto, who is Catholic, said that if every Christian shared iftar with a Muslim family this month, it would decrease prejudice and break down the persistent cultural barriers that exist in society.
Delegates Bob Hull (D-38), Brian Moran (D-46) and Adam Ebbin (D-49) all spoke to the crowd, which numbered over one hundred, on the importance of opening a dialogue between different faith communities and striving to improve relations between Muslims and their elected representatives.
By getting to know one another in an informal setting, leaders can cultivate a camaraderie that will be vital in case of a terrorist attack or hate crime against a Muslim in the region, those who attended said.
“It is important for politicians to listen to the views of this diverse community and for the community to know how to reach their local and state officials,” Moran said.
THE DELEGATES URGED Northern Virginia’s Muslims to vote on Nov. 8 and stressed that active political involvement was the best way to affect the changes in society they seek. There are 40,000 Muslims in the area and they will have a major impact on the election if they go to the polls in full force, the delegates said.
“If we want to have a voice and be represented we have to get out there and assert our rights,” said Mukit Hossain, president of the Virginian Muslim Political Action Committee. “No one will invite us.”
Dar Al-Hijrah has conducted several voter registration and education drives and its leaders have been speaking one on one with members on the importance of political activism.
The region’s Muslims have become much more politically aware since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but still have a long way to go before they reach the level of engagement of other minority groups, said Mohamad Fakir, a volunteer at the mosque. Fakir is unsure if Muslims will be as galvanized to vote in this election as they were in the 2004 presidential contest.
“We know we need to go out and vote to protect our rights,” said Alexandria resident Reema Khasawinah. “Young Muslims are more involved and understand that it’s at the state level where their lives are most affected by government.”
The public officials speaking at the mosque admitted that Virginia’s politicians need to do a better job of communicating with the state’s Muslims and will seek their input on issues dear to the Muslim community.
“We have to engage them better and make state government relevant to their lives,” Moran said.”