On a recent Wednesday night, families gathered at the Islamic Center of Contra Costa in Concord for iftar and evening prayers. In separate rooms, men and women gathered to pray, commune and break their fasts together.
The women’s side of the Concord center was awash in color, with congregants wearing a rainbow of brightly patterned scarves as they grouped around a buffet table. They shared dishes filled with dates (a traditional food for breaking the fast), homemade soups and savory combinations of meats and rice.
During the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslims eat just before sunrise. Then they eschew food, drink, tobacco and sinful behaviors such as cursing until iftar, a meal that begins after sundown.
The annual fasting commemorates the 30-day period in which the prophet Mohammed received the Quran, their holy book, from Allah. Ramadan changes dates every year according to a lunar cycle. Following the fasting, Muslims enjoy a three-day celebration called Eid.
Teen girls share aspirations
Like at most events, the group quickly separated by age. After helping older members get settled, teenage girls joined together to talk about school, sports and what they were watching on their families’ DVRs.
Setarah Jahid, who wore bright colors and a hijab scarf draped gracefully over her hair, hopes to study political science at UC Berkeley after graduating from Concord High. Jahid normally doesn’t wear her hijab outside the mosque. Her classmates wouldn’t have known her family is Muslim had she not spoken up in class once to correct a misconception about Islam.
“I feel like that was so 40 years ago,” she said of the strict limitations on what women are and are not allowed to do.
“That’s not because of religion,” agreed fellow teen Salwa Saleh. “Our dads are telling us, “You need to go to school, learn to live independently.’ ”
At the gathering, Saleh served as an ambassador to newcomers. That’s no surprise since her father is the local imam, or prayer leader.
Saleh enthusiastically recounted a recent pilgrimage with her family to Mecca and her plans to attend UC Davis next year as a math major. She hopes to work toward a career in ophthalmic surgery.
Moms and grandmothers sat in a group nearby, some speaking in English, others in Farsi or Dari. They compared recipes, told stories about their families’ summer adventures and shared news of their community. On the other side of the wall, their husbands and sons sat together as well – no doubt having similar discussions and the same meal.
A growing population
More than 2 million Americans surveyed in 2012 identified themselves as Muslim. According to the Pew Institute, “if current trends continue, the Muslim population in the United States is projected to more than double in the next 20 years, from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030.”
The Clayton Valley boasts an extensive Muslim community, with many immigrants hailing from Afghanistan and Iran. A number of local stores offer such delights as fresh-baked naan bread and baklava, a dessert made with layers of phyllo dough, nuts and honey.
Nabi Amini runs the popular local business Arya Alterations on Clayton Road. He emigrated 23 years ago from Kabul, Afghanistan. His father worked as a shoemaker, and following in his footsteps, so to speak, Amini is now a well-regarded tailor.
Just down the road from his shop is the Zenith Food Mart, where Amini’s friend, Shah Wali Payanda, patiently explained the correct gift to bring when visiting a family during Ramadan. (Dates are best.)
“Your eyes fast, your mouth fasts, your heart fasts,” Payanda said, describing the introspection and enlightenment sought by the tradition. “All should be fasting with you.”
Back at the mosque, meal time had finished. With voices quieting, the women gathered into lines marked into the carpet to face Mecca. Their voices rose along with that of the imam, as together they recited prayers into the night.