Just after sunrise Saturday, Nov. 13, one voice rises above the din on the top floor of a UM dorm. In steady lilt, Arabic words that sound like a song summon 40 people to a patchwork of prayer rugs lining the floor. Some two-dozen men, and a few boys, form two rows. Behind them, about 15 women and girls fill another.
It is Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. The sliver of the new moon was spotted last night, so the month of fasting—one of the five pillars of Islam—comes to an end this morning. Missoula’s Muslims have gathered at the top of Aber Hall to greet and celebrate this day, the most widely celebrated Muslim holiday.
The air buzzes with joy and activity. After the prayer, there is a sermon about piety after Ramadan. Then the food comes out: dates, apples, candy and rice pudding. There are also small cups of ZamZam water, special water that springs from a well in Mecca and is known for its curing qualities, and spicy Saudi Arabian coffee and Pakistani tea. Later in the day, most of the women will meet at a nearby house and decorate one another with henna. Families will visit each other’s homes and share supper. The children will collect money and candy from their elders. Everywhere, the greeting “Eid Mubarak”—“Many blessings on this festival”—is heard.
“With so many people here from different countries, the thing that connects them is Islam—we have people from all six continents,” says Abdullah Al-Ghamdi, a Saudi Arabian graduate student in education, who delivered the sermon. “We are united and so happy because in a country like this, people can practice their religious beliefs.” Most of the celebrants here come from countries—Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, to name a few—where Islam and Eid al-Fitr are practiced and celebrated on a scale unimaginable to Missoula. Islam, the world’s fastest growing and second-largest religion, has an estimated 1.5 billion followers. In the United States an estimated 5–7 million Muslims reside. During Ramadan in the Great Mosque at Mecca, millions pray day and night near the Kaaba—an ancient stone building and the point toward which Muslims worldwide pray.
“In our country,” says Pakistani Shahnaz Rafiq, “there is a special smell on Eid.” She talks about the perfume with which men and women are adorned, the special meals and treats that fill tables, the music and parties, the families and friends who put aside any ills of the year to forgive one another and rejoice. “Everywhere we see only smiles, everyone has happy feelings.”
Asked if she misses celebrating in her home country, Rafiq smiles wistfully and looks around at the people chattering and laughing. “We are a thousand miles away from our home, but Missoula is like our family and home.”
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, holy because it is believed to be the month the angel Gabriel gave the Quran, Islam’s sacred book, to the prophet Muhammad. Due to the lunar calendar, which is shorter than the standard Gregorian calendar, Ramadan shifts slightly each year. This year, it began Oct. 15 and ended Nov. 13.
During Ramadan, Muslims “fast with body, mind and soul,” says Samir Bitar, an adjunct instructor of Arabic language and culture at UM. In terms of the body, this means going without food or water from sunup to sundown for the duration of the month. Fasting the mind requires that you not lose your temper, swear or think jealous or negative thoughts about others. And fasting the soul entails extra praying—on top of the five daily prayers that Muslims typically offer—and extra reading of the Quran every day.
Bitar, who calls himself a “Palestinian-Montana product,” left Jerusalem at 16 to come to college in Montana, where he’s lived since. He says the monthlong fast affects his energy levels, and in turn his teaching voice, and that “because you are denying the things we desire, one tends to be a bit irritable—the patience has to be controlled.”
Ryan Fries, a wildlife biology student and vice president of UM’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), says the first five days of the fast are a bit shocking to the metabolism, but that “after the first week, it’s like cruise control.”
One purpose of the fast is to promote empathy. “You’re identifying with people who don’t have the luxury to break their fast, even if they wanted to,” says Fries. During Ramadan, Muslims emphasize charity and take extra time to give to the poor in their communities.
Every Friday and Saturday during Ramadan, MSA held prayers at sundown and members broke their fasts together. Fries says MSA has about 50 members, and the group’s main function is to bring together Missoula’s Muslims.
Traditionally, Fries says, Muslims break their fasts with three dates and water, and then they pray. Bitar says the meals that follow prayer usually have more variety and courses during Ramadan than they do the rest of the year. Special soups and dishes abound, in part because families and friends break their fasts together every night. And since followers haven’t eaten all day, Bitar says, after the initial meal at sundown it’s common to eat again at 9 p.m., and then at 11 p.m., before going to bed.
Sunday, Nov. 21, MSA will honor Eid al-Fitr with an event that aims to include and teach the non-Muslim campus community. There will be food and drink and a presentation on the connections between the Quran and science.
But for Missoula’s Muslims, the real event happened last Saturday. During the prayer, Fries says, he looked out the window and saw a flight of small birds circle three times near the glass. He thought of Mecca and the thousands of birds that circle the Kaaba endlessly. And he thought Allah had heard Missoula’s prayers.