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Amid mass killings and hunger in Gaza, Ramadan takes on a new meaning for Muslims


Every day during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims reflect deeply on their religious practice and observe a daytime fast. This year Ramadan arrives early next week at a time of mass death and suffering in Gaza. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed in the Israel-Hamas War. Many more are starving. So how might that change the way people think about and practice Ramadan this year? To help us answer that question, we have called Imam Omar Suleiman. He is the founder and president of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research outside Dallas, Texas. Welcome, and thanks for joining us.

OMAR SULEIMAN: Thank you for having me, Ari. I appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Does Ramadan feel different to you this year?

SULEIMAN: It feels incredibly different. I think that every year, there is a different perspective on life and the purpose of life and what the month of joy is meant to bring and a month of worship is meant to bring. You know, Ramadan is a month in which we are to connect to God and to become overall more conscious about him and about ourselves and about the people around us and about, you know, the suffering of the world and the blessings that we take for granted.

And this year we are watching, you know, people in Gaza that do not have food, do not have drink, that do not have safety, that do not have the blessings that we value and that we take for granted every day. And I think that more people are probably worried about the beginning of a ground operation in Rafah than they are joyous at the arrival of the crescent of Ramadan. So you've got these dueling emotions on one hand, where you have the happiness that you typically would feel at the holy month arriving and the sadness at the death and destruction that we've seen over the last five months.

SHAPIRO: And so does that make the physical experience of fasting different this month from other years?

SULEIMAN: I think so. You know, when COVID hit, we talked a lot about how we used to take our, you know, social gatherings for granted. We used to take our communal worship for granted and just the sustenance that comes through being in the presence of people for granted. But this year, I mean, we're seeing what it looks like to have everything that could possibly happen that is terrible to a person happen to a population and the world completely unable to stop it. And so I think that for us, it has opened our eyes to the meaning of life, the meaning of, you know, solidarity and the meaning of empathy. And I think it gives us an added layer to our worship this year. You know, we always tell people to pray for others and to use what they are gaining in terms of the nourishment of the soul to physically, emotionally, spiritually nourish others. I think that for this year, our prayers, I hope, will be more sincere. I hope that our supplications will be deeper, but I also - I hope that we actually see tangible difference on the ground in Gaza.

SHAPIRO: You are Palestinian American, and I know you talk about Gaza in your sermons. And I'm sure your congregation in the Dallas area includes Muslims of many different backgrounds. And so how do you integrate or balance your identity as Palestinian with your role as a religious leader to a broad, diverse community of Muslims?

SULEIMAN: So here's the thing. In my community, we have people that have lost 20, 30, 40 members...

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

SULEIMAN: ...Of their family in Gaza. And they're coming to the prayer every day, even outside of Ramadan. And so my entire congregation is immersed in this right now. I think that it's very important for people who perhaps don't go to a mosque regularly or don't interact with Palestinian Americans regularly to know that the entire Muslim community is absolutely immersed in what is happening in Gaza. And I think that there have been a lot of political miscalculations in reading the Muslim community and media miscalculations and not understanding just how much this weighs on our conscience as a community.

And so when I walk into a mosque or when I walk into any Muslim community these days, I feel like everyone around me is Palestinian because everyone has seen that sadness either in their own families or people that have become like family to them over the years because they've worshipped side by side for so long. And now they are seeing that brother or that sister that they used to pray next to on a daily basis is coming to the prayer every day, and you can tell they've been weeping for the last few hours.

That has been the case for the last few months. It's been a lot of sadness. It's been a lot of heartbreak. And there are Palestinians in pretty much every Muslim community in the United States, and every Palestinian has a story of loss right now, unfortunately. And I think that the entire community has felt that loss and embraced that loss and is all thinking about how we can come together and not just make ourselves feel better with what is happening but channel our community sadness into actually, you know, bringing about global solidarity with the people of Gaza.

SHAPIRO: And so when a member of your congregation who has lost so many family members says to you, how do I practice the joy that I'm commanded to experience during Ramadan this year, what do you tell them?

SULEIMAN: I tell them that there are different meanings of joy. There is the joy of celebration. And then there's the joy of perspective and knowing that your family members have gone to a better place and that there is ease after hardship, there is light after darkness, that Ramadan teaches us that after deprivation there is fulfillment and that your joy doesn't have to look like laughter and smiles but that inner peace and contentment and knowing that the God that you worship has not forgotten your relatives and your family that leaves from this world even in the cruellest of fashion will be embraced by the most compassionate and that we will continue to strive together for those that are still alive to make sure that they're able to once again find joy in this world.

SHAPIRO: I've spoken to you about your role as a community leader, as a Palestinian American. What about just your own personal celebration of Ramadan with your family this year? How are you feeling about it?

SULEIMAN: Well, you know, my wife and my children - my father, who is a Nakba survivor, was born in 1943 and has painful memories. And so I think that with my children, this has been a learning experience, an experience of growth for them as it has been for us. Thankfully, you know, every year in Ramadan, as a family, we have gone to homeless shelters. We've done things in our backyard with refugee populations that have left some of the war zones that were otherwise so distant and exposed our families to our broader community, our broader Muslim family, our broader human family.

But I think that for this year, look. I've shown my children that it's OK to cry and that tears don't have to be tears of despair, that we always have hope and that part of that hope is in our ability to continue to strive in whatever way God has allowed us to strive. Just like every Ramadan, we know that we can't solve world hunger with the small acts of kindness that we do. We can't solve the crisis overnight that has been visited upon our brothers and sisters in Palestine over all these years. But the small acts of solidarity will go a long way, especially when you have so many people around the world that have woken up to this reality for the very first time over these last five months.

SHAPIRO: Imam Omar Suleiman, thank you so much. And Ramadan Mubarak.

SULEIMAN: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE TRIO JOUBRAN'S "SHAJAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.