Add new comment

Topics: Diversity, East Asia and the Pacific, Middle East and North Africa
Keywords: Ramadan, Islam, Muslim students

04 August 2009
Ramadan in a Multi-Faith Family

Ilana Alazzeh was born in San Francisco to an Israeli mother and Palestinian father. She currently attends Smith College in Massachusetts, where she stays active in community service and interfaith work, regularly speaking on panels regarding Islam and religious pluralism.

Celebrating Ramadan at Smith College has always been difficult. My thoughts always drift back to celebrating with my family, such as heading to the beautiful masjid every weekend for iftar. Smith’s masjid is less dazzling: It’s a large, bare room. Still, it is a truly blessed place of salaam, and I try to go whenever I am not too tired from homework. The community there is small but diverse, and is one of the most sincere I have ever encountered. It’s not only Muslims, but the religious, the curious and the ambiguous all join each other for breakfast. Ironically, this diversity still reminds me of home.

When my Israeli mother celebrates Ramadan, she always incorporates her heritage into the holiday. For example, while my Pakistani stepfather is downstairs making pancakes, she will loudly sing Hebrew songs from her childhood to wake us up for suhoor. Although she has converted to Islam, she still keeps her Jewish customs alive.

Once, my mother’s father came to visit during Ramadan. He is a small, mischievous and comical man, a Palmach war veteran of Israel. Unlike my mother, he refused to celebrate Ramadan. He would begrudgingly come to the masjid with us, and even though he knew Arabic, he only spoke in Hebrew or English. While we were inside doing our night prayers, he would smoke outside with my stepgrandmother: a Southern Baptist African American who converted to Judaism. It certainly wasn’t the traditional picture of Ramadan.

But even though my grandfather did not celebrate with us, he did respect the holiday. I remember him giving my younger brother a clap for teasing me with food when I was fasting. Even though he wasn’t fasting with me, he honored my decision.

I’ll never forget the night during Ramadan that my puzzle of a family and I piled into our van to see the Christmas lights. We sang Jewish, Christmas and Dawud Wharnsby songs. (Watch the YouTube video “We’ve scanned the sky Dawud Wharnsby.”) My family of different cultures and religions were all celebrating together, enjoying each other’s company and acknowledging our diverse faiths. Although our coexistence was rough at times, it was built out of respect and real love.

My celebrations at Smith will never be able to match Ramadan at home, despite its best attempts. Iftar at Smith’s modest masjid are usually a sad but wholehearted attempt at what’s made at home. However, as my mother stresses, “Ramadan isn’t about iftar.” And she’s right. Ramadan for me is a time of peace and introspection, which ironically happens the most in congregation. It is when I celebrate with others that I feel closer to God. Community begets personal faith and personal faith begets the community thriving with full spectrum in God’s multi-faith world.

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or any other agency in the federal government.