From sunrise to sunset Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, which began on the evening of May fifth. Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, marks the end of Ramadan. For three days Muslim families will feast, buy new clothes, and exchange greeting cards.
Abilene has a small Islamic community, made up primarily of immigrants, as well as students from Saudi Arabia who are studying at all three of Abilene’s universities, and Muslim airmen stationed at Dyess Air Force Base.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims not only fast, they also add things to their spiritual activities, extra charitable giving, more reading of scriptures in the Qur’an and more prayer.
You won’t find a mosque in Abilene. Some local Muslims pray in their homes. Others worshipers travel to Dallas which boasts the fourth largest Muslim population in the U.S.
Doctor Mohammad Al-Sayyad says Abilene’s Islamic community used to meet in the lobbies of a few hotels around Abilene. But in 2017 McMurry University granted the local Islamic community a prayer room.
“With the grace of McMurry University,” Al-Sayyad notes, “they granted us this room with Muslim student associations to have the prayers here.”
McMurray makes the space available daily. But the largest gathering is for Friday prayers. There’s no local imam. And in the absence of a formal leader, Al-Sayyad guides worshipers through their prayers, and offers a khutbah, an Islamic sermon.
The prayer room is small. On a recent Friday about a dozen worshippers entered and took off their shoes. They then selected a colorfully decorated prayer rug, some feature images of the Kaaba in Mecca, which is the most sacred location in Islam.
The observance of Ramadan is one of the “five pillars of Islam,” five acts that are mandatory for Muslims. Dr. Al-Sayyad explains that Ramadan is significant because of its connection to Islam’s sacred text, the Qur’an.
“Ramadan is a month in the lunar calendar. It’s the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The first revelation of the prophet Mohammed happened to be in that month. And later on it is prescribed in the Qur’an, shahar Ramadan, the month of Ramadan, is a month when the revelation descend, or revealed to Mohammed. The order came afterward that whoever is present on the month of Ramadan should fast.”
The Ramadan fast includes exceptions for children, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, or the sick. Muslims not only give up food, but also water, smoking, sexual relations, and they try to avoid sinful behavior. After sunset, Muslim families break their fast together and then wake up before sunrise to eat a meal before the day begins.
The purpose of fasting is spiritual reflection and rededication.
The charitable gifts given during Ramadan result in greater spiritual rewards than benevolence at other times of the year. Because of this emphasis on charity many Muslims will invite non-Muslims to their meals. Loretta Fulton is a freelance religion reporter and the creator of the online faith forum “Spirit of Abilene.” Fulton, who’s also a member of Abilene’s Interfaith Council, received such an invitation. “They were very gracious to me,” Fulton says. “And I learned a great deal from them about how significant an observance Ramadan is to Muslims. It was a wonderful experience to get to interact with a family being invited to their home and getting to share the evening meal. It was quite educational and enriching for me.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 92% of Muslims observe Ramadan. The practice is compulsory in Islamic nations, some of which enforce abstaining from food, drink and smoking during the day with fines and jail time. While there are no penalties for breaking Ramadan rules here, observing the month long fast and practicing Islam can be a challenge.
Al-Sayyad says it used to be very hard to find halal food, now days two local grocery stores sell food in conformity to Islamic food laws. It can also be difficult to fast when the majority of people around you are not, which makes it important for families to encourage each other.
However, Al-Sayyad says that being Muslim in a small community and in Abilene, even with its difficulties, can actually be a blessing. “Being a small community and a community like Abilene is, in a way this is a blessing for us.” He says. “We have been through hardship what the media portrayed Muslims and faith so in this community and Abilene it was very supportive.”
When McMurry opened up space for Muslim worshipers, some in the community voiced opposition. But Doctor Al-Sayyad says he has never felt discrimination in his 20 years in Abilene, unless you count mispronouncing his name. And he says people can easily find out more about Islam, but should do it properly, “Don’t take it from individuals take it from the source, from the true source, because we are human beings; sometimes we make mistakes. We are not a divine people, we are ordinary people, so don’t take me as an example representing the whole faith of Islam. I would rather you go and read more carefully about Islam.”
Al-Sayyad suggests anyone with questions about Islam read about the religion first hand in the Qur’an or other books explaining the religion.