Muslim for a Month

I teach Social Studies in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area at a very diverse high school. In an attempt to better understand a significant portion of the student population, I have undertaken the idea to become "Muslim for a Month"; hence the title for this blog.

Location: Fairfax County, VA, United States

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Three iftars and a field trip later…

I have attended three iftars (breaking of the fast dinners during Ramadan) in the past four days.

Iftar one:
I was invited to the home of a colleague, who also invited another teacher to attend as well. This was a small gathering (the host, her husband, their two children, and three female guests, including myself) and I was the only one wearing hijab, which did not really occur to me until later. I have just gotten used to wearing it when I am not at home and I do not think about it.

I learned a lot at this iftar, as I spoke with the husband of my colleague (who has been reading this blog) and he was kind enough to clarify some points and enlighten me on others. I had known, prior to undertaking this experience, that there were Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but my knowledge of the differences between the groups was practically non-existent. I knew of the reason behind the split, had understood that theological differences between the two exist, and that the two groups do sometimes not get along at all (see sectarian violence in Iraq recently as an example). But I had never stopped to think about the differences in practice and tradition that would have developed over time; although I should have – my mother is Catholic and my father Congregationalist, and they have different practices even as they worship the same God in many similar ways. Anyway, I was told that the book I have been reading (Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam) is based on Sunni practices and beliefs, rather than Shiite, and the masjids I have been attending are Sunni as well. When I undertook this endeavor, I never even thought: will I be Sunni, or will I be Shiite? I just thought I would be Muslim, which, honestly, seems now so uninformed and not completely thought out, since I knew of the existence, etc of the different sects. Anyway, I was informed at this iftar that two topics I have blogged about, divorce and zakah, differ between Sunni and Shiite. Apparently, for Shiite Muslims, divorce involves more than a declaration made three times, even for a divorce initiated by the husband. There have to be two witnesses involved, and it sounded like, an encouragement of counseling to try and prevent the divorce. Also, I was told, that while Sunnis consider 2.5% the correct amount for zakah, that Shiite Muslims give 20% and consider that correct (both groups cite from the Qur’an, but disagree on how the ayah should be interpreted).

Iftar two:
I was invited via a colleague to attend an iftar at the home of a woman I met at the Mustafa Center last Monday evening. I would guess there were about 60 or more people there. It was a very large gathering, with the women congregating in the living room and the men in the basement, which is also where almost everyone prayed before and after dinner. This was my first experience with the extra prayers for the “Night of Power”. The Night of Power is, according to many but not all Muslims (I have no idea on the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims on this issue), believed to occur sometime during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Some say anytime during the last 10 days, others say on odd nights during the last 10 days, etc. Anyway, the belief is that the prayers offered to Allah on that night are worth the prayers of one thousand months, so people stay longer at the masjid and pray more, hoping to benefit from this opportunity. At the iftar on Saturday night, 8 extra prayers were done. I was talking to a woman after the eight cycles had been completed, but before the singing began, and she asked for my impression of the extra prayers. I explained that since the surahs (excerpts from the Qur’an) were recited by the gentlemen leading the prayers in Arabic, I tended to sometimes go into a Zen-like state, where I was enjoying the cadence and tonal qualities of the recitation, without understanding what was being said. However, those times were very relaxing and I felt very “one with the universe”. The only problem with my mind drifting is that I lose count of the rakahs, and would often go to stand up and realize we were to remain kneeling or vice versa. I really enjoyed the singing (which was in English, so I could follow along) which was accompanied by a drummer.

Iftar three:
Last evening, more informal, 6 women (myself included), how many men I do not know, as they entered through a separate door into the basement, prayed and socialized down there while the women were in the living room. Additionally, the men waited for the hostess to tell them that the kitchen was empty so they could come and get dinner without mingling with the women. After dinner, my colleague, her mother, and I went back to the Mustafa Center for more extra evening prayers. I stayed for 10 of the 20, I believe, and left around 10 pm. The masjid was very crowded in the beginning but after about 8 of the 20 prayers had been completed it started to empty out, and rows were combined and more room was available for all.

Field trip:
On Saturday I went along with a group of students recruited by a fellow teacher to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. My role was only to assist on the bus, and I did not have any responsibility to monitor the students once they were at the Festival. Many of the students had arrived and were signing in, and I was standing around talking with other teachers, when the mother of a student approached me. She too was wearing hijab, asked if I would be going on the trip, and seemed very reassured when I answered in the affirmative. I was the only one she spoke to, asking me about what time I believed we would return, and what her daughter was doing at that moment. I sort of felt like a fraud, because she was reassured by the presence of a Muslim woman it seemed, which I am not. Not wanting to get into a long explanation of my personal journey, however, I let her believe that I was what I appeared to be. I hope this was not a faux pas or truly disingenuous on my part.

The field trip did enable me to see the friend that I wrote about earlier. A friend/fellow teacher was able to act as a dual chaperone – for the students and for myself and my friend who happens to be male – the three of us spent the day together at the Festival.

One thing I have to say at this point is that I was worried at the outset of this experience that I would be unintentionally offending Muslims with whom I came into contact. However, reality has been so very different. Everyone I have met has been so welcoming, even people I have never met before: willing to provide information or resources, inviting me into their homes and truly making me feel that I am a real part of the community. I knew before I began (in an intellectual way) that community was something very important to Muslims, but the reality is so much more than that: women I have never met saying “asalam alaikum” to me in the mall, getting hugs from women I meet at the masjid or at an iftar, having people want to meet me because of what I am doing and who may have been reading this blog (which as I told someone on Saturday evening is a little weird: at times it feels as if people I have never met are reading my most private thoughts and feelings, which I guess I have invited you all to do!). And the most recent generosity: I received just this afternoon a CD of Hamza Yusuf in the mail, a gift from a woman I was introduced to last week at the Mustafa Center.

P.S. Success! I was able to successfully make and distribute some of the apple cakes (with halal vanilla) yesterday, with a few more to make this weekend.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing this amazing experience with us! You come across as very sincere and well-meaning. I wish you the best of luck.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I commend you on your endeavour of understanding Islam. I am a Moslem woman that has been in US for over 36 years. I was educated in an American School and University in Cairo, Egypt. I differ with other Moslems who segregate between the genders. The first Moslem was a woman, Khadiga the Prophets wife. Women at the time of the Prophet used to go to war with the men, sit with the men to learn the Quran, discuss issues with the Prophet e.g. one of the Suras is named "She Who Argues". I think if a woman is decently and modestly dressed as well as her behaviour is decent, then there is no reason for the segregation.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peace and blessings,
I know I am reading your blog toward the end of Ramadan and your experiment wil soon be over but I wanted to ofer a helpful tip for wearing the scarves. For people who have really fine, smooth hair it is sometimes helpful to wear an underscarf, like a wide cloth headband or a plain scarf wrapped over the hair and tied at the back to help keep the primary scarf in position. This also helps keep those wisps from peaking out at the edges, will cut down on the hairspray :-)

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Salaam Alaikum Sister,

If posssible could you join us for iftar on Saturday.

Please contact me at

Ma Salaam

5:40 PM  
Blogger Cafe a la Fikr said...

Peace be with you,
I am a muslim doctor working in West Virginia and have just 'discovered' your blog, and i find it very very refreshing and unique. May God keep your faith strong and may he bless you with the showerings of Ramadan.


Raja Sohail Abbas

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Megan Sweas said...

I am an assistant editor with U.S. Catholic magazine and I doing a story on Catholic-Muslim dialogue "on the ground" (between ordinary people rather than scholars/clergy). I've been reading some of your entries and find your experience fascinating. I know you call yourself a "lapse Catholic" but I would still love to interview you about this past month--what you have learned about Islam through it and how it has affected you personally. If you are willing to talk to me, please contact me at sweasm at claretians dot org.
Thank you!

12:42 PM  

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