Inside the Muslim faith, in Charlotte
1:00 pm
Mon September 21, 2009

Inside the Muslim faith, in Charlotte

Muslims all over the world are celebrating Eid al Fitr today to mark the end of Ramadan. This holy month of fasting is a cornerstone of the Muslim faith. It's a time for the faithful to dig deeper into their spiritual lives. And in Charlotte, it's a time to reach out to non-Muslims. WFAE's Simone Orendain attended a Ramadan open house in the Charlotte area and learned a little more about Islam and its Muslim followers. She prepared this profile.

A quick and easy way to learn what Ramadan is with a catchy rap that proclaims "Ramadan is here!"

Images of Muslims, mostly children flash across a big screen in the basement of Aroon Sait's home in Harrisburg. The music video shows young Muslim men sticking to their strict 30-day regiment of fasting from sunrise to sunset- even if food and drink are all around them.
Sheikh Bassam Obeid of the Islamic Center of Charlotte breaks it down further.

"When your stomach is empty, your brain starts to be pure, purifying our thinking, purifying our brain- our mind. You have peace of mind also. You can feel with the poor people more and you can- you will be close to God more and more and more," says Obeid, an imam, or Islamic scholar and spiritual leader.

There are about 75 Muslims and non-Muslim guests at Sait's house. It's a Friday night and as soon as the sun sets, Muslims break their fast by eating a date and drinking water. The date acknowledges that some who go hungry in the world have only the small fruit to eat for the whole day.

Prayer follows immediately after. Islamic Center spokesman Jibril Hough leads the call in Arabic.

The men face Mecca- Islam's holiest site, which is in Saudi Arabia. At different intervals they prostrate themselves, stand with heads bowed, bend at the waist, place a hand on their hearts, quietly reciting responses.
Muslims pray five times a day, prostrating themselves before God or Allah as they call him. That's God from Jewish scripture, the God that Abraham called on and the same God that Christians worship. The Muslim prophet Muhammad is a descendant of Abraham.

Obeid says the most significant tenet of Islam is that it is monotheistic.

"To believe in God. To believe that he is the one, he is with us, that he forgets our shortcomings- our sins. To be close to him, to obey him. Allah is the center of everything. God is the main thing," he explains.

At Sait's house a bounty of grilled meats, saffron rice, noodles and lasagna fills two buffet tables- one where men gather and one where women gather. Hough says this separation is a form of respect for modesty between Muslim men and women who generally feel more comfortable mingling with their own sex.

The Muslims here offer to answer guests' questions about their faith. A young visitor asks whether taking shoes off at the door is related to their faith and they say no, they just want to keep their floors clean. The other visitors seem more interested in observing than asking questions.

Miguel Vasquez is Catholic and lives along the same cul de sac as Sait. It was his first up-close-and-personal contact with Muslims.

He says, "I guess after knowing more about them and seeing that they are a very compassionate and more open people than I thought they were, I have more appreciation for their culture and their religion."

Vasquez says after the 9-11 attacks he was angry at- and then became fearful of- Muslims. He's glad he attended the dinner.

"I guess the Muslim religion it was discredited because it was associated with death and violence and all of that. I guess there's a very small amount of Muslims that are doing this thing through their religion but after this experience I totally changed my mind. It was quite amazing the different view I have now," says Vasquez.

The negative association is one reason Charlotte area Muslims host gatherings like this. Jibril Hough the Islamic Center spokesman, takes pains to say that Islam is a peaceful religion.

He says, "By treating people fairly, by treating people justly, you'll have peace in your life. If you don't treat people right, or if you cross words with someone at work or something. You'll go home and you may not sleep well that night because you haven't lived your life right."

Hough says the 9-11 attacks were carried out by people who don't even qualify to be Muslims. He's saddened and upset that innocent Muslims are now caught in the crossfire of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Islam is a religion of peace but it's also a religion of justice. It's also a religion of self-defense. So it's not a religion like the Quakers per se where they're pacifists and they don't believe in any type of fighting or anything like that. That's not what Islam is," he says.

The problem is, Hough says, this concept of self-defense and standing up to injustice is something extremists twist to suit their purposes.

But beyond this, Hough says it's essential to continue to invite people to Muslim homes, to the Ramadan breaking of the fast or to masjids, which are Islamic houses of prayer. He says people could come with an open mind or people could come with preconceived notions. What's most important is they all walk away knowing they were welcome.

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