Vol. 16, No. 23 Nov. 20 - Dec. 3, 2003


A Taste of Ramadan at Bedford Park Mosque


Go up the wooden ramp, open the door (with the "I Love Islam" sticker), and remove your shoes to enter one of the evening Ramadan observances at the Masjid-Hefaz mosque. Every night for 29 days, or roughly until Thanksgiving, neighborhood Muslims come together at the 198th Street masjid (mosque) to break their fast and pray. 

"It teaches us how to be humble," said Rafeek Khan, a Bedford Park resident and mosque leader, about the daily fast. "People do it because they love doing it."

While fasting all day might not seem so pleasurable, Khan finds the observance of 
Ramadan empowering. "It's easier than a diet," he said.

Part of that strength comes from Ramadan's symbolism as a time to be close to Allah, the Islamic God. According to belief, the Quran (Islam's holy book) was brought to the people from heaven during the month. It is a time to commemorate this pivotal event by restoring faith -- much like Christians do during Lent or Jews on Yom Kippur.

For Memet Souleiman, who's gone to the mosque since it opened nine years ago, the sacredness is omnipresent. "We need that moment to be very near Allah," said the longtime Bedford Park resident and restaurant owner. "I feel like I'm home."

The mosque is literally in a house (just west of Webster Avenue) as is often the tradition. The money that is needed to build a large structure is instead applied to charitable deeds, explains Khan. At Masjid-Hefaz there is a food pantry, and many members are involved in community service projects.

While some of the Muslim traditions may seem foreign to those not familiar with them, the feeling on the house's three floors is warm and welcoming. Cubbyholes for dozens of pairs of shoes line the foyer's right wall. Beyond this is a long room where about 40 men and boys sit facing each other to eat a communal dinner. From large serving trays, members scoop up traditional fare: seasoned rice, curry chick peas, flat breads, meat and salad. 

On the third floor, about 20 "sisters" (women and girls) eat a similar meal together. Masjid-Hefaz is unique for a local mosque in that it includes female members. With Islam's strict separation of the sexes, women cannot attend a mosque without a designated area.

Sandwiched between the sex-segregated rooms is the prayer area -- an unfurnished space with an altar at the end. Wall-to-wall carpeting makes prostrating five times a day for prayer, as is the Muslim tradition, easier on the knees. The sweet smell of incense permeates the space.

Attendance at Ramadan, which varies widely between 35 and 125, is always a diverse group. Khan is from Guyana, Souleiman is Greek, and others come everywhere from Asia to Africa.

On a dry-erase board near the entrance, the diversity of names unfolds on the Ramadan Iftar (meals) calendar. Each night a member of the mosque signs up to cook and serve that night's dinner.

"The Khan family," is written in a square mid-month. "This is training to be charitable," said Khan as plates are passed around the men's meal.


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