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The last days of Ramadan in Oakland

on September 2, 2010

Along a stretch of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way where bars on the windows aren’t going out of style anytime soon, a little congregation met and prayed on Monday night, as it has every night in recent weeks.

Flanked by an entrance to Highway 24 and a liquor store, the Lighthouse Mosque opened its doors just before 9 p.m., and those who had just broken their daily fast trickled in to pray and hear a little piece of the Koran sung in Arabic.

Muslims in Oakland are in the last third of the month of Ramadan–its most intense part, as observers continue to fast during daylight hours, declining both food and water until the sun sets. Fasting can be more challenging when Ramadan falls during the summer months, as it does this year. Daylight, and with it the Islamic obligation to fast, lingers long in August.

Like the Christian observance of Lent, Ramadan is a period of spirituality, purification, and self-reflection. It’s also supposed to be philanthropic period, during which Muslims donate money or time to charitable purposes. Many Muslims decline to eat, drink, smoke, or have sex during daylight throughout the month. The obligation doesn’t extend to young children, or those who are pregnant, diabetic, or have other limitations.

“You definitely get hot and thirsty, but you learn to pace yourself,” said Jenny Mattheson, a Lighthouse Mosque member, about giving up food and water on hot summer days. “It’s really a wisdom, because when you’re fasting, you can’t spare the energy to get upset or get all worked up about something.”

The month of Ramadan is the ninth in the Islamic calendar, which is based on 12 lunar cycles. This lunar “year” is shorter than the earth’s rotation around the sun, and therefore Ramadan isn’t tied to a particular season. It happens a little earlier every year, beginning and ending with a new moon.

At Lighthouse, the congregation is ethnically diverse. Blond Nordic types pray alongside those of Asian and African descent. However, most have at least one thing in common.

“Our mosque is probably 90 percent converts,” said Abdul Latif Finch, the imam here. Many, including Finch, are Americans who were raised in other faiths and still have non-Muslim family members. Evidence for its members’ local heritage piles up in the doorway as people arrive: Crocs, Converse All-Stars, flip-flops and Adidas, cell phones and eco-friendly BPA-free water bottles.

Unlike other mosques in the area, which often cater to a single ethnicity or nationality, Lighthouse services are held in both English and Arabic. The mosque’s few hundred members—men, women, and children—pray together in the same small, cream-colored room. “There are no barriers out there, so why would there be in here?” Finch said.

Lighthouse is three years old, but it replaces another mosque, Masjid al-Iman, which outgrew the small space and moved to Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Finch, 35, was in the first class of graduates from the newly-established Zaytuna College, an Islamic seminary in Berkeley.

On Monday, there’s no food, only a little socializing and “Tarawih,” the singing of one thirtieth of the Koran’s thirty parts. Lighthouse worshippers break their daily fasts together only on the Saturdays during Ramadan. Other days they eat at home, after the sun sets.

Before Tarawih, a few members of the Lighthouse mosque met early, sitting on the carpeted floor and reflecting on what makes Ramadan valuable to them.

“A sense of intimacy and closeness, because everybody’s fasting together,” said Mattheson. She smiled and turned to Finch, the imam, who had been quietly listening. She pointed mischievously.  “Now you!” she said.

Finch’s answer reflected his recent trips to the East Coast and Arizona for various speaking and teaching engagements. “It’s not just happening here, this sense of heightened spirituality, where people aren’t feeding the base self,” Finch said. “It’s the same thing in Pennsylvania, the East Coast, the desert southwest.”

“The whole entire community across the globe, there’s a real beauty to that,” added member Ally Alexander.

“Fasting also really makes you appreciate the fact that you have access to fresh, clean drinking water and great food,” Mattheson later wrote in an email. “And makes you much more empathetic for the people who don’t.”

Ramadan begins with the appearance of a new moon. Some Islamic traditions calculate its arrival mathematically, while others rely on local sightings with the naked eye. The month begins when someone—any member of any age from any mosque—sees the first sliver of new moon. Each community determines how and when its members will begin observing.

Before this Ramadan began, some worshippers from Lighthouse headed to the hills to try to spot the new moon firsthand, getting away from the city’s light pollution and looking out into the sky from the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. The first night they went, before predictions suggested the moon would be visible, it was also too foggy. “The next day we could see it,” Finch said, and for Lighthouse, Ramadan began.

But this year’s observance has encountered some awkward timing. The month of self-denial is usually followed by a big three-day party, called Eid al-Fitr. “Eid, that’s more like Christmas,” said Zahra Billoo, director of the Bay Area chapter of Council for American-Islamic Relations. “Ramadan is more like 30 days of Thanksgiving. You’re doing a lot of reflecting and introspection.”

However, the last day of Ramadan 2010 could fall on September 10th, depending on when the new moon appears.  Some in Muslim leadership worry that celebrating anything on September 11th could be misconstrued.

“The idea is all you need is one video of someone smiling on 9-11 and you have the potential for backlash,” said Billoo, explaining some Muslims’ anxiety.

Eid’s also arriving on the tail end of a stream of anti-Islam incidents nationwide, including a brick thrown through the window of a mosque in Madera, California, the stabbing of a Bengali Muslim cab driver in New York, various attacks on Muslims in the South Bay, and the well-publicized protests of the construction of a community center near Ground Zero in New York City.

“We always have to be careful about how others perceive us,” said Jason Hamza Van Boom, a spokesman for the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland. “On the other hand, during Ramadan, we’re able to concentrate on the spirituality and focus on prayers and community togetherness.” Van Boom added that there had been discussion by several clergy to make this year’s Eid celebration on September 11 into a day of national unity and healing across faiths.

“The current wave of nativist xenophobia is certainly grating, but it’s clearly coming from a fringe of nut cases and Klu-Kluxer types,” wrote Rashid Patch in an email to Oakland North. Patch directs the Alalusi Foundation, a non-profit fund for international humanitarian aid.

“Well, during Ramadan, besides giving up food, drink, smoking, and sex during daylight hours, Muslims are also supposed to give up getting angry,” he wrote, explaining the attitude he tries to maintain, despite concern over anti-Muslim sentiment.

He noted that, as a counterbalance to an anti-Muslim element, there’s been a lot of interfaith support coming from Christians and Jews, and interfaith dinners have been held across the Bay Area. Patch said he’d been to one on Sunday at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and another will be held at the Berkeley United Methodist Church on Saturday, September 4.

And as with any observance based on community and eating together, Ramadan is observed with traditional foods. Many break their daily fasts with a small bite, perhaps some milk and dates.   Then comes prayer and a larger meal, sometimes shared with relatives or the entire congregation.

Persians and Turks commonly have soups made from lamb, bean, and grain, Patch wrote, while North Africans may eat lentils and barley.

“Every Muslim grandmother from West Africa to the China Sea has at least three recipes for a special soup for breaking fast in Ramadan, and every single recipe is the only real, authentic one for the special Ramadan soup,” he wrote.

For Lighthouse members, it’s a bit different. Its communal meals reflect the cross-section of its constituency.

“You have your cornbread with your chapatti,” said member Ally Alexander. A recent meal included chicken and macaroni and cheese—Oakland soul food.

Ramadan meals, called “iftar,” are publicly available throughout the month in Oakland. On Wednesday, Masjid Al-Islam in East Oakland had a chicken and waffles night, according to Mattheson, and the Oakland Islamic Center in North Oakland has free food every night. Lighthouse has free meals Saturday nights.

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  1. Keith Feldman on September 2, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Thoughtful, nuanced, on point. Great work! So glad to have someone reporting on Islam and Muslims that brackets the trumped-up “controversies” and focuses on the people and the incredibly vibrant institutions they inhabit.

  2. Koloud 'Kay' Tarapolsi on September 2, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Ramadan Kareem to everyone! If you’d like to send a one of a kind handmade cards in celebration of the upcoming Eid, please visit In celebration of Eid, I am having a free shipping within the US sale on any two or more cards purchased.

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