#29for29: Maureen Elias - Silver Spring, MD

By Maureen Elias

If someone asked you to stay the night with a stranger, would you? What if that stranger belonged to a religion that is commonly misunderstood and often associated with religious extremism?

When I was asked to spend the night in the home of a Muslim family to experience an evening of Ramadan, I replied yes without hesitation. Why? Because I have Muslim friends who are wonderful Americans who are saddened by the stereotypes and misinformation that they often hear about their beloved faith.

The day before my family began our military move to California; I packed a small overnight bag and headed to the home of Amjad and Sabiha. Why would I take the night before moving my family across the country to spend the night with strangers? Because I believe in the mission behind the 29 for 29 Ramadan initiative. In order to combat the misconceptions about Muslims, we need to interact and get to know our Muslim neighbors. As a veteran, I can continue my service by uniting our communities through service and shared experiences.

Amjad and I had corresponded electronically before my stay and he explained to me what fasting during Ramadan entailed, how to observe it, and why it was important in their faith. At 4:00 am the morning I was to go to their home, I began my fast. The fast includes not drinking or eating anything from sunrise to sunset which serves three purposes: to bring the faithful closer to God, to spiritually and physically purify oneself, and to be mindful of the suffering of those less fortunate. The fast involves more than just skipping a meal, it is also about avoiding gossip and arguments, and keeping the purpose behind the fast ever present in your mind.

For Muslims, fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The other four Pillars include a declaration of faith, daily prayer, charity, and performing the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. I was struck by the parallels between Christian practices and the Pillars.  I grew up in a faith that encouraged us to fast one day per month to bring us closer to God, and it is our custom to donate money we would have spent on meals to a food bank. So fasting was generally familiar to me, but, fasting without anything to drink was a new concept. Going without food or drink was difficult because I had been working hard doing the final cleanout of my home in preparation for our move.

I arrived at the home of Amjad and Sabiha at 5:30 pm. Upon my arrival, I was offered food and drink. It was incredibly kind of them to have food prepared for me in case my body was struggling with the requirements of the fast. But I declined; I wanted to break the fast with the family at their Mosque.  We immediately bonded over our common experience of serving in the Unites States military. Amjad served in the Navy for twenty-four years as a Corpsman and eventually became an officer. I served as a counterintelligence agent in the United States Army.

We then drove the hour to the masjid, (another word for mosque), in Silver Spring, Maryland. I donned a hijab, not because I was required to, but out of respect for their faith. Sabiha had already entered the Mosque earlier in the day due to Friday prayer services and attending multiple meetings of the ladies’ auxiliary, so Amjad introduced me to a woman from his congregation and asked her to guide me in before he entered the men’s section.  

Being separated by gender outside of dressing rooms and bathrooms was an unfamiliar experience. I had some concerns that I would feel uncomfortable in such a heavily female environment. Worries that I would not be welcome or would have people be unkind to me flooded my head.

On my own spiritual journey, I have experienced many different churches and a variety of faiths. . I have been kicked out of one because of the faith I was raised in. At another, a woman whispered behind her fan to another woman, “What the heck is she doing here?” While I have been warmly received by some, I have also been made to feel unwanted by others. At the mosque, these memories informed my worries: Would I be uncomfortable? Unwelcome? Would people be unkind?

My apprehensions evaporated immediately. Sabiha introduced me to her friends who invited me to sit with them during the reading of the Quran. Every woman who I encountered met me with a smile, I was included in conversations, and one woman invited me to sit and play with a small child as she visited with friends. Everyone I encountered gave me a hug and thanked me for attending.

We entered the sanctuary and listened to the Imam (the religious leader of their Mosque) as he read that day’s passage from the Quran. During Ramadan, the Quran is broken into sections in order to be read in full by the last day of Ramadan.

Then, two sweet young ladies handed me a date, and at the appropriate time, we broke our fast by eating a date and drinking a small glass of coconut milk, breaking our fast in a manner similar to the prophet of their faith. I have never had a date before and was unsure what to expect. They kind of looked like cockroaches without legs. But it was delicious! Like candy.

After breaking our fast, we headed back into the sanctuary as the Imam called out evening prayers. The women bowed and kneeled as appropriate. In deference to their religion, I bowed my head. Being in the room with women of all ages, in shared worship, was humbling. Their focus-no side eyes, no snide comments, no perceptions of judgment as to whom was bowing lower or stronger in their prayers, made for a beautiful expression of their faith.

After prayers a savory dinner awaited us—a feast called ‘iftar’. My host was so gracious that she had prepared something special for me in case the community meal was too spicy. But I was able to eat with everyone, making the ending of the fast with others who had spent the day in purposeful fasting a special moment. As Sabiha explained to her friends that I had observed the fast with them, I was greeted with exclamations of surprise and then gratitude. I was offered so many tasty dishes!

During iftar, Sabiha explained that Ramadan is also a time of service to others. She spoke of fundraising initiatives and community service projects, showing me photos of cars the mosque had filled with food donations for local homeless shelters and food banks.  No matter one’s faith, I believe we can all learn from this particular commitment to compassion. After the meal cleanup was complete, we headed back in to the sanctuary as a younger man who had memorized the Quran led prayers.

We drove the hour back to their home. Amjad and I visited in the kitchen with Sabiha as she prepared things for the following morning’s breakfast. We shared stories about our families and more about the differences and similarities between our religions. Sabiha showed me up to a lovely guest room where I gratefully sank into bed after being up so early. I had no trouble at all falling asleep!

I arose the next morning to begin the next day’s fast with Amjad and Sabiha with a meal called Suhoor. She made the most delicious meal of what her children refer to as ‘greasy tortillas:’ eggs, peppers, and fruit and yogurt. She offered me a yogurt drink that I was told would help quench my thirst during the day. It was definitely a flavor I was not used to! Before we parted ways, they said their morning prayers and we took some photos together. I’ll cherish that photo as a token of this experience, and a reminder to greet my new neighbors in California with an open heart.

Something surprising that I took note of during my experience at the Mosque, was the subtle but ever-present security. Unfortunately, the gathering of the faithful during Ramadan can make members targets for those who would wish them harm from outside their faith, as well as those with more extreme religious factions of their faith. It is sad to think that in our country which was founded on religious freedom, these wonderful people must practice their faith with tight security to ensure no one is harmed.

Over two percent of Americans are Muslims. And yet, six out of ten Americans state they do not know a Muslim personally. This separation leads to a divide in understanding. There is more we can do to increase understanding. Our strength as a nation is in our shared values of liberty, fairness, and justice. When we practice discrimination based on religion, culture, or race, we are undermining the very fabric of our country. I hope my fellow Americans will see that Muslims are active members of their community who contribute to our economy and serve in our military.

If you are given the opportunity to have a conversation with a Muslim, I encourage you to do so. Not to convert, not to pry into their lives, but to begin to break down barriers of understanding, as I did with Amjad and Sabiha.

I am thankful to Muslim Marine and Veterans for American Ideals for the #29for29 initiative, which has further opened my mind and heart. And I’m grateful for the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Maureen Elias is a U.S. Army veteran, military spouse, veteran advocate, and mom of three.