230: A billion Muslim neighbors prepare for Ramadan — and you can share in it

illions of Americans are thinking about looming back-to-school and back-to-work rituals this week. In addition, more than 1 billion of our Muslim neighbors around the world are getting ready for the sacred fast of Ramadan, which starts right after Labor Day and runs through September.
    I spent the past few days visiting mosques across southeast Michigan, preparing for the start of a pioneering project at ReadTheSpirit: SharingRamadan.info
    Just as we have invited readers to celebrate Lent, Passover and other Christian and Jewish religious seasons throughout the past year, we are welcoming Muslims and non-Muslims to visit a unique “landing page” within our family of Web pages during September.
    SharingRamadan.info isn’t exclusively for Muslims. In fact, Muslims already lead the religious world in the creative use of the Internet. Five of the 10 most popular religious Web sites in the world are Muslim. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only Christian denomination that has broken into the top-10 list of religious Web sites. Not even the Vatican’s massive Web site ranks that high.
    So, what can we add to a well-connected worldwide community of more than 1 billion Muslims? We aren’t providing an encyclopedia or history lesson for Muslims. Those resources already exist.

     What we can provide, and what will be unique for English-speaking readers is a landing page where, day by day, Muslim men, women and young people simply will share uplifting stories about their everyday experiences with the holy month. We hope this will become a bright spot in the day for many readers — non-Muslims as well as Muslims.
    Everywhere I traveled in recent days, Muslims greeted this project warmly and were eager to participate by telling their stories about Ramadan. (If you’re reading this preview today and feel moved to add a story yourself –- just click on the tab above labeled “SharingRamadan,” where you’ll find some story ideas, more information about the project and an easy way to share your own story right now!

    At the Muslim Center in the heart of Detroit, I surprised Imam Momodou Ceesay in the middle of a Saturday-afternoon Arabic-language class. When I poked my head into his classroom, he grinned and welcomed several of us, including photographer Megan Crumm and our intern Thomas Gilchrist to come inside and join the class.
    “You say you are here to find out about Ramadan?” the imam, a multi-lingual Muslim scholar who immigrated from Gambia, asked us. “Well, that is exactly what we are studying today. Ramadan is coming so soon that we are studying the Arabic from the Quran about Ramadan today. Look!”
    And he began an impromptu lesson for non-Arabic-speakers as a quick introduction to the sacred month.
    “You see here?” he asked, pointing to lines from the Quran that he had written on a chalkboard. “Oh ye, who are believers, the fast is prescribed for you.”

     “This is a month of great mercy,” the imam explained. “We believe that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the month of Ramadan, so this is a very blessed month for us. We fast during the day this month –- no food or drink at all during the day, unless you are sick or you are traveling, for example. God is merciful about this. God wants us to learn to be more merciful and kind ourselves. God wants us to show charity, especially in this month.”
    Everywhere we traveled, Muslims said they were awaiting Ramadan with an eagerness that surprises non-Muslims. After all, the idea of refraining from any food or liquid during daylight hours for a whole month sounds like a very uncomfortable challenge.

    That’s not the way to think about the month, Aruba Obeid said at the American Muslim Center in Dearborn. When we visited on Friday, Obeid and her family were serving as the hospitality crew providing snacks on the front lawn outside this mosque that looks more like a Norman Rockwell painting of a typical American chapel than what most Americans might expect of a Muslim center. Hundreds of worshipers were leaving Friday prayers and Obeid and her relatives were greeting friends, welcoming children and passing around packets of treats. (The photo below shows Obeid taking a brief break on the front steps of the mosque with two of her children.)

     “You need to tell people that Ramadan really is not about food –- or the lack of food,” Obeid said. “It is a fast, but the point of it is to think about so much more than food.
    “Ramadan is a time of great happiness and unity,” she said. “We feel energetic and excited even as we are humbling ourselves throughout the month. It’s as though God is telling us we’ve got another opportunity to learn how to live as good people. God is saying to us: Yes, you can be more humble. You can be more patient. You can be more kind. You can help the poor. Ramadan is about everything except being self-centered.
    “Ramadan is when we all are reminded who we need to be within a larger community. Ramadan is all about sharing with others.”

    I could not have said it better myself.
    Thank you to all of the Muslim men, women and children who already have shared their stories with us –- stories we will share with all of you throughout September at www.SharingRamadan.info. If you’re curious about the project, visit that landing page right now. And, especially if you’ve got a story to share –- we welcome that right now.

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(The photo below shows the exterior of Obeid’s mosque in Dearborn, a slice of Americana in the heart of a historic city. That’s their hospitality table at the right of the photo.)

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