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Harford County's Muslims break bread with neighbors of other faiths in Ramadan 'iftar'

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Every year, Muslims from around the world fast for 30 days from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food, drink and other temptations of the flesh during Ramadan, a month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

This year is no different, with the month expected to end on Aug. 8 with the holiday of Eid-ul Fitr, or feast of the fast-breaking, depending on the sighting of the moon.

On Saturday night, for what Dr. Rehan Khan says is the fourth year in a row, the Muslim community of Harford County held an iftar, an evening fast-breaking meal, and invited non-Muslims from near and far to join them.

Khan, the mosque's president, said the purpose of the open-house iftar was to "to open our doors, to let other people know who we are, and let people know about Muslims in their neighborhood."

"It's all about educating people about our culture," Khan said. "It has been very successful in the past. People from other churches have joined us."

Khan said other religious organizations had reciprocated as well.

"They've invited us to their churches. That way, there is understanding among the people of the book," Khan said, using a term from the Quran describing followers of other monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Judaism.

Lisa Mele and her son, Daniel, agree.

"I think it is important to build bridges between Christian and Muslim communities," said Mele, whose husband, Craig, is pastor of Maple View Baptist Church in Joppa.

"We have an interest in other cultures," Mele said. "We have a South Asian activities center at our church, and want to learn about other religions and other cultures."

Mele said Khan and his family had been their friends for many years, and that they had attended other events at Masjid Al-Falaah in the past and were happy to answer Khan's invitation to attend on Saturday.

"They've always been exceedingly hospitable to us and exceedingly very kind," Mele added.

Started in 2007

The Masjid Al-Falaah community has been around since 2007, having used a garage and office complex as prayer spaces before acquiring the Philadelphia Road property 2 years before, Khan said, with most members of the community working at Aberdeen Proving Ground and of South Asian descent, with a small number of Arabs and African-Americans.

The evening began at sunset as the Muslims and their guests gathered under picnic tables set up under a tarp outside to break their fast with "light" appetizers, including pizza, pastries and salad.

Shortly afterward, they left to perform their evening prayers in the nearby prayer area before returning to enjoy a more substantial meal of South Asian delicacies including rice, naan bread, chicken curry and vegetable curry.

Indian Sizzler of Newark, Del., catered the evening's meal while Wings and Pies of Edgewood provided the pizza. Both restaurants are Muslim-owned and serve halal meat, which is slaughtered according to Islamic law.

Khan was hesitant about providing numbers, although he estimated a turnout of about 250 for Saturday's dinner.

Fasting is required for adult Muslims in good health during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The month is a time for increased blessings, and Muslims will devote more time to prayers and increase charitable activities. Ramadan began this year on July 10.

Southern Harford Del. Glen Glass was visiting the mosque for the first time and said that while his experience with the local Muslim community has been limited, "they've treated me like gold."

"I'm just really enjoying meeting people here, and enjoying the food, culture and peaceful atmosphere," Glass said as he ate. "I am getting to know people here and looking forward to enjoying the night, and finding out what [community members] need from me and expect from me as their delegate."

Aberdeen resident Gary Woods came at the invitation of his neighbors, brothers Faisal and Qusay Multani.

"It's nice," Woods said as he took in the event from a picnic table. "It's a very, very friendly environment."

Introduction to the community

Qusay Multani said that was the main purpose of the event: to introduce people to the county's Muslims.

"[The iftar] was a pretty good idea," Multani said. "Harford County can see the whole Muslim community presence within itself."

"It's good for people of different faiths to intermingle," he added.

Bob Shakeshaft and his wife, Patricia, both of Havre de Grace, also were invited by Muslim neighbors.

"We're very interested in different religions," Bob Shakeshaft said. He said it was his first time at the mosque.

"[The community] seem like very happy people. If I just got to eat I'd be very happy, too," Shakeshaft laughed.

"We don't see this, we don't see the culture, so it's eye-opening for [Harford County]," Shakeshaft added. "More people should see [Muslims] come together like this. We don't often experience this."

After food was served, community members and their guests gathered in the prayer area and sat on the floor to hear remarks from community leaders and prominent guests.

Khan started off by welcoming everyone to the mosque, and said that American Muslims are indebted to their neighbors for protecting them during a period of anti-Muslim hysteria. He said the mosque had very positive relations with its neighbors.

"We did not have any negative event or hostile graffiti or anything, we were happy for that because this is the very first masjid in Harford County," Khan said. "We have a very open door policy, with open communication. We're very open to accept people."

Khan said it is important for others to join the Muslim community to "get first-hand information about Muslims and not through the filters of CNN and Fox News."

That way, "people get to know and understand each other, and meaningful friendships have been formed," Khan said.

Dual cultures

The mosque's Imam, Hamood Rochelle, spoke about how Muslim youth growing up in America see themselves as both Muslim and American.

"Kids will take on an American identity, but at the same time, be Muslims," Rochelle said. He thanked everyone for coming to the iftar, and hoped events with the wider community would continue.

"I hope that these types of occasions will continue, but not only be confined to Ramadan, but other times in the year," Rochelle said.

Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, founder of the Minaret of Freedom Institute and U.S. Senate candidate for the Libertarian Party in 2012, said he's always felt welcome at the mosque, having visited twice during his campaign.

"Nothing is incompatible between being a Muslim and being an American," Ahmad, a Muslim, said, adding that there is a "common belief in freedom."

He told a story about a time during the days of the Prophet Muhammad, when a Muslim and Jewish person were arguing over whether Muhammad or Moses was the better prophet. Muhammad admonished the Muslim and told him that the Quran said not to distinguish between God's prophets.

The man replied that the Quran also called Muhammad "the seal of the prophets," and asked if that wasn't a distinction. Muhammad replied that he said the previous prophets of God were like bricks making up a house. He told the man to imagine such a house, but with one missing brick, and Muhammad said he was like that brick who was there to complete the house.

"Muhammad is the last in a long line of messengers" from God, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, according to Islam, Ahmad explained. "We have to believe in all of them."

A history lesson

Ahmad told the audience how during the Dark Ages in Europe, Islam was leading the world in scientific advances, and in how it treated people of other faiths.

"In its day, Islamic civilization was the most tolerant," Ahmad said. "Muslims today are a mixed bag, to be honest, but I want you to look at your neighbors, the people here feeding you."

Glass then was asked to speak and said he was honored to attend.

"I can't believe I missed this last year. Maybe I wasn't invited," Glass said to laughs. He told the group that as their delegate, they are his bosses, and he urged all of them to contact him about any issues they may have, whether positive or negative.

"It rains on Democrats, it rains on Republicans, it rains on independents, it rains on Christians, it rains on Hindus, it rains on Muslims, it rains on everybody," Glass told the audience. "We're all the same and we all have the same concerns."

Khan thanked Glass for his kind words, and asked him to defend Muslims in his work.

"Now that you've seen Muslims in action, when you're in Annapolis, if someone says something bad about Muslims, you can correct them," Khan said.

"That's right," Glass replied from his seat in the audience.

Another religious leader, Sheikh Abdullah Helmy, closed the event by praying for God to protect everyone, to bless America and people around the world and to bring people to the right path, first in Arabic and then in English.

As he was leaving to head home to Montgomery County, Ahmad said he was glad to come, having turned down two other invitations to attend Masjid Al-Falaah's iftar because "the support I got from this masjid for my campaign was absolutely heartwarming."

"I'm glad that they're having these types of events," Ahmad said, adding that he "didn't know any better way to combat [anti-Islam propaganda] than to open our doors."

"It counteracts the daily dose of propaganda [Americans] are getting from the media," Ahmad said. "One has to keep in mind that this is not the biggest mosque in terms of numbers in the state, but the fact that it is able to hold an event like this speaks well for it."

"I did like the food, you can quote me on that," Ahmad laughed.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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