Harford County residents and leaders had an opportunity Saturday to meet members of the local Muslim community and learn more about Muslim culture and traditions during the holy month of Ramadan, a critical event as the military continues its fight against Islamic fundamentalist groups around the world and tensions remain between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States.
"I believe that education is the way that we will bring our community closer," Harford County Board of Education member Cassandra Beverley told visitors and members of the Harford County Education Society's Masjid Al Falaah who gathered before a prayer service.
Leaders of the Abingdon mosque held a community iftar, or breaking of the daily Ramadan fast, and open house Saturday night. A similar community gathering was held during Ramadan in 2013.
"This is part and parcel of American culture," Dr. Rehan Khan, president of the Harford County Education Society and an Abingdon physician, said. "These are the productive citizens; these are the contributing people of the society."
Ramadan began this year in late June – the timing of the monthlong observance varies based on the lunar calendar – and ends with the traditional Eid Ul-Fitr feast July 28.
Muslims must fast each day from dawn to dusk and break their fast each night during the iftar.
Mosque members and guests enjoyed Indian and Pakistani-style dishes, such as chicken and lamb curry, biryani, which is a spicy meat-and-rice dish, shish kebabs, nan flatbread, fruit and vegetables and sweet pastries for dessert.
"I think this is a wonderful opportunity for people who don't know [about Islam]," Beverly, a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates, said. "Ignorance is the worst thing that we can keep."
"No matter what, food unites us all," she added.
With Beverley and fellow school board member James Thornton present, Khan requested that the school system consider allowing Muslim students to leave school early on Fridays, so they can attend afternoon prayer services at their local mosque. For Muslims, Fridays are similar to the Christian Sabbath on Sundays or the Jewish Sabbath on Saturdays.
He also asked that school officials consider allowing students to be off on holidays such as the Eid.
In accordance with Islamic tradition, men and women prayed on different sides of the sanctuary, separated in part by a wall and in part by a curtain.
The curtain was opened to allow Beverley and other female visitors to speak to the full congregation from their side of the room.
Mariam Elba of Abingdon is the wife of the mosque's imam, or religious leader, Sheikh Abdullah Helmy. She stood outside the women's section, watching children play on the basketball court and playground.
"Ramadan is something really spiritual, not just for me, but for all Muslims," she said.
Elba explained that Ramadan is not just about the daily fast, but about "connecting with God" and remembering those in the world who have little to eat or drink.
"Some people just have very tiny pebbles of food," she said. "The main point is to feel the poverty of the world, and it's also to connect to God."
Several members of the congregation, and Muslims who visited from outside Harford County, stressed that they want the larger community to know that not all Muslims are the extremists and terrorists who grab media attention because of their violent actions.
"We get up and go to work just like you," said 28-year-old member Faisal Chaudhry, of Fallston, who works as a trade analyst at Morgan Stanley in Baltimore. "We have families; we are contributing positively to the community."
His father Shahjhan Chaudhry, a native of Pakistan who also lives in Fallston, operates a 7-Eleven convenience store and Subway restaurant in Jarrettsville.
Shahjhan Chaudhry called Harford County "very peaceful."
"Since I am here [I have met] very peaceful people," he said. "I have a very nice relationship with the local churches and local schools; I always hire local people."
Hassan Javed, 29, of Baltimore County, who works as a police officer in Baltimore City, made his first visit for an iftar at the Abingdon mosque Saturday.
"For me to see a smaller community come together and have an event like that and open up an opportunity for other ethnic backgrounds to come out here and learn the culture, I think it should be a great experience for them," he said.
Harford Sheriff Jesse Bane, who is seeking re-election, also spoke to worshippers.
"There is a need in this county for everybody to be educated in your customs," Bane said.
The sheriff said his deputies went through a training session on Islam about six months ago, and he stressed the need to ensure Muslim residents remain safe and receive "equal protection under the law."
Bane told worshippers that "I'm glad you're in this country, and I'm glad you're in this county."
"You live in the greatest country in the world, and you're going to help us keep it that way," he said.