This Ramadhan was my second away from my family & community. However, two years ago, I was in Jordan and was amongst Muslims, so this was the first time for me alone in the US. The first week, I was extremely homesick: having spent most of my Ramadhans as part of the Khoja community, I missed the familiarity of qur'an-khani, iftars at the mosque on weekends, duas, etc. But I was determined to make this Ramadhan special, so I made sure I attended the free iftars that were being offered by the Muslim Student Associations (MSA) at the universities in the city. This allowed me to bond with the few Muslim friends I have made over the past few months. I am very grateful that my Muslim friends come from very diverse backgrounds and experiences because mingling with them has forced me to come out of my comfort zone and dispel any stereo-types I held about "other" Muslims.
When I was living in Minnesota, one thing that I found disturbing is how many Muslims,have institutionalized religion. For many, Islam only exists within the compounds of the mosque and although we may practice various acts of worship in our personal lives, Islam had begun to feel a ritual for me rather than a vital aspect of my life. What I find fascinating about my Muslim friends in DC is that as students or young professionals working in various non-traditional fields, we are all seeking a nearness to Allah but are willing to explore different avenues of spirituality and explore religion in ways that we probably did not "back home." This included deep conversations about life, women, politics, Islam, the Qur'an, history, culture and the future of Muslim Americans over Desi, Ethiopian, Arabic, Mexican and Italian iftars.
A few months ago, the MSA at Georgetown University had initiated a Seerah class that focuses on the life of Prophet Mohamed (SAW). The class meets every week and is taught by two young students who pour over tons of historical material so that we can have a better understanding of the Holy Prophet. Although the class is taught via a Sunni narrative, it has been so refreshing for me to learn about Islam right from its origins and in personal way, start all over again without the cultural baggage that I was brought up with. During Ramadhan, we were fortunate enough that by coincidence, we were studying about the first revelation of the Qur'an, and tried to experience what the Prophet, his family and followers must have experienced when the first few ayats were revealed more than 1400 years ago
Although the number of Shias in DC are few, we are definitely growing in number and during the 21st and 23rd nights (very important nights for Shias), a bunch of us got together at a friend's house and recited our dua's (supplications) and a'amals (specific prayers for the nights) in a circle over some yummy manadazi, makati and chai. We also ended up talking about what it means to be a Shia, the challenges we face within our own communities and the broader Muslim and American community.
For me, this Ramadhan has been like none other and over the past few weeks, I have established relationships that I know will last a lifetime. I have been able to bond with people - both Sunni & Shia - that in the past, I would have labeled as different and probably even ignored. Nevertheless, they have taught me so much about Islam and made me appreciate the rich diversity that exists within Islam.
As we near the completion of this holy month, I find myself questioning what exactly does a "community" mean? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a community is defined as people with common interests living in a particular area. As a Khoja, for me, it always meant that I belonged to a Khoja community. However, these past few weeks, I haven't been part of one, yet I feel a sense of connection with all the Muslims I have befriended. I find myself wondering whether it is possible to create a Muslim community or a pan-Shia community that is not based on language, nationality or ethnicity but rather on the common goal of understanding Islam and serving Allah (SWT). My honest answer is I don't know. What I do know is that this month has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life and I am willing to give it all I have to establish such a community.
"Guide us on the straight path, the path of those whom You have blessed, not the path of those who earn your anger, nor of those who go astray."
~Surah Fatiha, The Opening [1:6-7]