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U Understanding Islam

As Ramadan ends, Central Florida Muslims pray for world peace, interfaith understanding

By Susan Jacobson, For Orlando Sentinel , On 23 June 2017, Read Original
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he women’s section at The Islamic Center of Orlando overflowed with worshipers in brightly colored abayas observing the Night of Power, when prayers and good deeds are believed to be multiplied and sins forgiven.

Across the street Wednesday at the Muslim Academy of Greater Orlando, 100 interfaith guests learned about Ramadan, the monthlong period of fasting, prayer, charity and repentance.

“God is always waiting for us to ask forgiveness,” said Faria Zafer, 28, an English teacher at the Muslim Academy. “This is the month where we get a fresh start, a spiritual rejuvenation.”

But Ramadan, which ends Saturday night, has been overshadowed this year by news reports about violence by and against Muslims. Three incidents gained national attention this week alone.

A teenager walking to a mosque for a Ramadan service was beaten to death Sunday in Virginia. On Monday, a driver deliberately crashed a van into worshipers leaving a London mosque after Ramadan prayers. And on Wednesday, a man stabbed a police officer at a Michigan airport after yelling, “Allahu akbar” — God is great — the same words that begin the Muslim call to prayer.

“What we usually do is not newsworthy,” said Atif Fareed, interfaith director at the American Muslim Community Centers in Longwood. “Mayhem and atrocities are more newsworthy.”

The local Muslim community has taken pains to reach out to neighbors with interfaith events, including Iftars — break-the-fast meals during Ramadan — as a way to promote harmony and understanding.

Religious leaders, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, did the same earlier this month, urging interfaith friendship to reduce violence committed in the name of religion.

“The basis of every religion is good morals and doing the right thing,” said Alia Alli, 28, who worships at The Islamic Center of Orlando, a mile north of the Lake Buena Vista tourist area. “Believe in God. Love and obey your parents. You don’t hurt anyone else. That’s the core of it.”

Alli’s 19-year-old sister, Aniesa, a self-described fashionista who was dressed Wednesday in an embroidered turquoise abaya (a long, dress-like garment), complementary dangly earrings and a black hijab (head scarf), said strangers frequently scan her clothes and give her dirty looks.

Alia Alli said it’s not unusual for people to ask her to explain the Pulse shooting, which was carried out in June 2016 by a man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before spraying the Orlando nightclub with bullets.

But rather than getting angry, the women say they use such situations as opportunities to educate people.

“If you’re open to answering questions and you answer them openly and honestly, you’ll be fine,” Alia Alli said. “You have to understand that it’s new to some people and it’s OK to ask.”

The Night of Power is one of the holiest and best-attended services of the year. Worshipers break the daily fast by eating dates — just as the prophet Muhammad is said to have done — attend a prayer service and then have dinner.

Believers think the Quran was revealed to Muhammad that day.

At the Islamic Center of Orlando, hundreds of people waited in line for spicy Indo-Pakistani dishes — such as chicken biryani, chicken korma and couscous with chickpeas — served behind the mosque under tents, as a beefed-up security patrol looked on.

The men and women ate separately, and there was a bazaar on the women’s side featuring stylish but modest clothing and sparkly, colorful hijabs imported from Jordan and Egypt.

But prayer was the main purpose, and people went back into the mosque quickly, some staying until midnight, others all night. Muslims believe angels descend on the Night of Power, the heavens open and God accepts everyone’s prayer, said Fatima Ait Rami, outreach director at the Islamic Center.

“Ramadan is a month of love, of giving,” she said. “It’s a way to connect with the underprivileged and feel their pain.”

The fast period ends Saturday night and Sunday with the Eid al-Fitr festival. The Islamic Center of Orlando expects more than 3,000 people to celebrate at the mosque. The American Muslim Community Centers is having its festivities at the Orange County Center, where up to 7,000 people are anticipated.

Central Florida’s other Islamic centers — more than 40 are listed by the Interfaith Council of Central Florida — will observe the holiday in their own ways.

“While there is a lot of anti-Islamic sentiment, I think the true American values are people standing in unity," said Rasha Mubarak of Central Florida’s Muslim Women’s Organization. “I think that’s where Muslims and Americans in general find hope and disarm hate no matter who is the perpetrator.”

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