Breaking bread

Sacramento-area Muslims share Ramadan with members of other faiths

Iftar is the traditional breaking of the fast during Ramadan, usually by eating a date and drinking some milk before prayers, which are followed by a community meal.

It’s all about humility.

So says Dr. Amin Elmallah, an emeritus dean and professor in the business department at CSU Stanislaus and a member of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims.

Of course, he was talking about mountain climbing, but his assessment applied to the practice of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as well.

“Let me tell you, it’s a much deeper experience than you might imagine,” Elmallah said of his experiences. “It’s an entirely different perspective from the mountainside. Clearer, and it leaves you with a much better concept of just where you fit in. Humility, that’s what it is.”

Elmallah’s take on mountain climbing, offered to his dinner companions over a fast-breaking meal at a recent interfaith Iftar service at the SALAM Islamic Center, was quite similar to the perspective on fasting for Ramadan that was offered by keynote speaker Dalia Wardany. Wardany is the vice principal of Al-Arqam Islamic School at Masjid Annur, another Sacramento Islamic center.

“The real point of Ramadan is not about going hungry,” she told the assembled guests, which included many local public figures as well as representatives from a number of Sacramento religious organizations. “It is about getting closer to our creator and distancing ourselves from the things that get in the way.”

That would be, according to most faiths, the definition of humility.

Ramadan, which coincided with the month of September this year, marks the month that the Quran, the holy book of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims observe the founding of their faith by fasting from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from both food and water during the daylight hours if they are physically able to do so.

According to Wardany, Ramadan provides an opportunity to take inventory, to reflect on one’s life and actions, to break bad habits and build new ones. “Ramadan is a training period that teaches us that human beings do have what it takes to resist temptation,” she said. The period has what she described as the “Ramadan spirit” of peace and piety.

In this case, that spirit extended to non-Muslim friends, as SALAM welcomed them to break the fast with members of the congregation. Representatives of a number of area churches and synagogues were present, as well as some of the center’s neighbors and some public officials, including Mayor Heather Fargo. SN&R’s publisher, Jeff vonKaenel, was honored with an award for his work with the Building Unity project.

For those who were neophytes to Islamic practice, it was a far less exotic experience than might be imagined. To assume that all Muslims are fundamentalists is as shortsighted as assuming that all Christians must be Amish who shun modernity’s trappings.

Such assumptions are incorrect, of course. Much of the leadership in SALAM is made up of women, not all of whom choose to wear the veil, known as a hijab. Furthermore, the congregation includes people with roots—either via immigration or ancestry—throughout the world. Yes, there are blond, blue-eyed Muslims, as well as American-born Muslims like Wardany. Sacramento’s Muslim community is as diverse and American as apple pie—or baklava, which was available in sweet abundance.

America’s shared belief in religious freedom and diversity was the theme of Wardany’s discourse. As an American, she never expected to have her identity questioned simply because of the faith she practiced, as it was in the days following 9/11. “In this country, we can count on, no matter who, no matter where, no matter when, our rights are guaranteed, including the right to practice our religion as we choose,” Wardany said. “That’s what makes this a great country.”

That seemed to be one thing upon which everyone could agree. Another point of agreement? The meal was as good as the company.