Harford Muslims stress Islam's peaceful nature during Ramadan community gathering

Harford County mosque president presents world events as opportunity to learn more about Islam

While many Americans and Western Europeans have reacted to acts of violence committed by Islamic extremists in recent years by expressing fear about Islam and its practitioners as a whole, the events have also put a spotlight on the faith that was not there before 9/11.

"A lot of Americans, with all these things that are going on in the world, know a lot more about Islam than they knew about 20, 30 years ago," Dr. Rehan Khan, president of the Harford County Education Society's Masjid Al Falaah mosque in Abingdon, said during the mosque's annual community iftar dinner held Saturday night.

Muslims throughout Harford County, and the world, are observing Ramadan this month. The 30-day observance, which is marked by prayer, daily fasting and acts of community service, began June 17, and it ends this Friday.

Muslims fast from dawn to dusk each day of Ramadan, and they break their fast each night with a festive meal, or iftar. The Abingdon mosque opened its doors to the community for Saturday's iftar.

Local residents of various faiths gathered for a feast under a tent outside the mosque and later inside the building for a short presentation on Islam followed by prayers.

Khan noted that "there are more than 1.5 billion people, all over the world, observing fasting during the month of Ramadan."

"This an opportunity to ask questions," he said. "This is an opportunity to sit down with the local Muslims, because they are your neighbors, they are your co-workers."

Khan said the community is also welcome to celebrate the end of Ramada Friday at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood. Call 202-236-7338 to RSVP.

Imam Hamood Rochelle, who is visiting Masjid Al Falaah from Cornwall in Ontario, Canada, and has been giving daily lectures during Ramadan, said during Saturday's presentation that Islam means "submission to the commandments of God," but it also means peace.

"It is a peaceful religion, contrary to popular belief, and contrary to a lot of things we're seeing these days, it is a religion of peace," he said.

During the past year, Muslims living in the West have been dealing with increased fear and suspicion from non-Muslims as acts of violence such as the massacre of staff members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, an attack by two men in May against a gathering in Garland, Texas, of people who were participating in a contest to draw cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad or the increasingly barbaric acts by members of the Islamic State organization in Iraq and Syria, that have captured the world's attention.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has captured a large area of both countries, including major cities in Iraq such as Mosul and Ramadi, established an Islamic caliphate and attracted foreign fighters from all over the world, including Western countries.

"We feel that there are certain groups, certain fringe groups, that have hijacked the Islamic name," Rochelle told the audience at Masjid Al Falaah.

He said extremist groups try "to be as sensational as possible because they know that's what's going to garner attention."

Rochelle acknowledge later that Muslim community leaders have a dual challenge of explaining the true tenets of their faith, not only to non-Muslims, but to members of the own community who could be drawn to extremist groups.

"Events like this help to bridge the gap between communities, so there can be more of an open dialogue, and people can see what the reality of Islam is," he said.

This year is the sixth in which Rochelle has spent Ramadan with the Masjid Al Falaah congregation. He is a teacher at the Al-Rashid Islamic Institute in Cornwall, and the school sends him to Harford County each year.

"I've grown very attached to the community over the years, and they've been very hospitable to me," he said.

Masjid Al Falaah's imam, Omar Baloch, also spoke to the group before prayers. He stressed the similarities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which are all centered on a belief in one God and descend from the biblical prophet Abraham.

Baloch also said all three faiths stress "moral values."

"In that sense, practicing Muslims are close to practicing Christians in the sense that we as a community understand we need religion in our society to keep our moral values upheld," he said.

Baloch said Islam embraces the teachings of the Christian prophet Jesus Christ.

"We are told to fast because prophets before, like Moses and Abraham and Jesus, peace be upon them, they commanded their people to fast," he said.

Harford County Del. Glen Glass, who represents the county's Route 40 corridor in Annapolis, stressed to the audience that he is there for all residents of his district.

"I'll always be available to you and your family," he said.

Lisa Gardner, who lives in Fallston and is Roman Catholic, attended the iftar with several friends from area churches. They all held copies of the Koran, Islam's holy book, that were given out by Baloch.

"We loved everything, from the food to the hospitality," she said. "We really appreciated getting the ideas of how people in this community are lumped in with people they're as horrified about as we are."

Gaffour Kosi, who lives in Bel Air and owns some local Exxon gas stations, said Muslims fast during Ramadan and also read the Koran, Islam's holy book, from "start to finish" during that month.

"When you read it, you try to follow the verses both in meaning and also in actions so 30 days gives you a chance to be a better person," he said.

Oluwole Oke, of Bel Air, is originally from Nigeria. He recently obtained his Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, or CRNA, certification, and he plans to start working after Ramadan.

He said he is regularly involved in community service projects through the mosque, such as feeding the homeless in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and he also sends money to support an organization in Nigeria that feeds people during Ramadan.

"All of us try to donate generously," he said.

Nishat Bhatti, of Aberdeen, said adults encourage young children who fast during Ramadan with small parties and gifts as tokens of encouragement.

"It's like a birthday!" her 11-year-old daughter Iman said.

Bhatti, whose family operates hotels in the Aberdeen area, said that, for herself, "Ramadan is just basically putting everything back to neutral."

"It's a time to reflect and strengthen values and beliefs and coming together with communities, a time to give back to the community," she said.

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