LUMBERTON — This month Muslims across the world are observing what is considered the religion’s holiest celebration: Ramadan.
In Robeson County, Muslims who observe the holy month have frequently faced misconceptions but according to Waleed Nasser, imam for the Islamic Center of Lumberton, just as many locals have expressed openness and curiosity.
“I think the people here are good people and are accepting of other people,” Nasser said. “We have not had any problems so far. I believe that there are prejudice people all throughout the world. Yes, there will be prejudice people here, but I believe that is everywhere.”
Nasser, who is originally from Jordan, has served as imam in Robeson County for only a year but his Islamic Center, located at 104 Chestnut St., has given a sense of community to a number of area Muslims who might otherwise have to travel more than an hour to worship at the next closest Islamic Center.
During the month of Ramadan, Nasser can expect a larger turnout than usual.
According to Nasser, among Muslims Ramadan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, and lasts for 29 to 30 days, based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon. This year Ramadan began on June 28 and will last until July 29.
During this time, observant Muslims must fast from dawn until sunset, read from the Quran and refrain from swearing, sexual activity, arguing or taking part in anything that may be seen as degrading of one’s spiritual purity.
Most importantly, Ramadan is a month of charity. Though giving a certain percentage of one’s savings to the needy is already obligatory for Muslims throughout the year, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to give an even greater percentage to those in need than usual.
“Charity is very important,” Nasser said. “We have to feed our poor people and we have to support them. If you give charity during month of Ramadan, God will multiply for you. We want to feed others who do not have money to buy their own food. It helps us [identify with] poor people and it helps those people. It helps remind us to care about all people …This way the community will be close to each other.”
According to Nasser, it is important that Muslims not limit their charity to those who share their religious philosophies, but extend it to people of all faiths.
“We have more in common than we have things that separate us,” Nasser said. “I think fear only comes from people who do not communicate. We want to answer questions and I want the entire community to feel welcome to come to our Islamic Center. It is a center for everyone not just for Muslims.”
While Nasser’s experience in the community has been a welcoming one, other area Muslims have had more difficulty living as a minority in a country where much of the media representation of their community highlights fringe extremist groups such as ISIS.
“[ISIS is a] filthy pack of degenerates that has no right to claim leadership over the Muslim people,” said Muhammad Jawad, a Muslim American living in Fayetteville. “They will receive their equal measure in the afterlife and God willing, their hypocritical fanaticism will result in cooler heads filling the vacuum they leave when they are removed … Somebody needs to remind them that ‘Salām’ means ‘peace.’”
Jawad, like many local Muslims, says he enjoys answering questions about his faith but recognizes that there still exists many prejudices that can make some Muslims feel reluctant to talk. Initially, Jawad had been hesitant to even have his name printed due to safety concerns.
“I’ve seen the sort of comments that get posted on news articles about Islam,” Jawad said. “And there are only four people in the Western Hemisphere with my last name.”
University of North Carolina at Pembroke graduate Feda Abdelrasoul says she had frequently heard what she described as “ignorant people” refer to her as oppressed due to her wearing of a hijab (a head-dress), or claim that she is starving herself, however she says that she came upon even more people who had simply been curious about her culture.
“My freshman year at UNCP is when I started noticing that people would come up to me and ask me questions, probably because I was the only “hijabi” (a nickname for a woman who wears an Islamic head-dress) attending UNCP,” Abdelrasoul said. “So I was always asked questions about my culture and faith. I never was offended. Especially in the month of Ramadan. The community was very open. They wanted to know more and it was my pleasure to openly answer their questions and break down any misconceptions. Living in a county where you are definitely the minority is hard, and it’s even harder when you stand out based on your wardrobe.”
As a world history teacher at Lumberton High School, Jamie Bell has also found himself clearing up misconceptions about his culture when students begin asking questions.
“Many people don’t realize that it is an Abrahamic religion with its roots based in Jewish and early Christian teachings,” Bell said. “‘Allah’ is simply ‘God’ in Arabic, and ‘jihad’ is not literally ‘holy war,’ it is ‘struggle in faith.’ The biggest thing living in a post-9/11 mindset is how this relates to terrorism … Kids see what many of the world’s Muslims would consider extremist minority groups and believe they are the norm. Also, Muslims exist all over the world, not necessarily the Middle East and not all of them are within the Arab ethnic group. So dispelling the idea of saying someone ‘looks Muslim’ is a big thing I try to teach. I tell the story of how when I was visiting Xian, China I went into a part of the city called the ‘Muslim district’ with heavy Muslim influence in architecture and culture.”
One other important part of the annual Ramadan tradition that many non-Muslims are usually unaware of, is what is called a “iftar.” Iftar refers to a feast that is had at the end of each day of Ramadan, during sunset. The feast is a way of making the daily fasting less arduous while at the same time celebrating a sense of community.
The Islamic Center of Lumberton has held Friday night iftars throughout the month in which Nasser says anyone in the community is welcome to attend, regardless of faith.
“A proper communal iftar is a big event,” Jawad said. “Though an Iftar with me is pretty much watching me talk with my mouth full of cupcakes.”