The snowflakes danced in the wind around Alfond Arena at the University of Maine Thursday morning. On the roof, workers spent their second day chipping, scraping and shoveling off ice and snow. It was a familiar winter ritual for the building most people associate with hockey and basketball.
Inside, however, a very different kind of ritual was taking place. The greater Bangor area’s Muslim community gathered to celebrate Id al-Fitr, a holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, Islam’s most holy time of the year.
The Dexter Lounge, opposite the arena, seemed an unlikely Mosque for the service, which in many countries is marked by a three-day national holiday. On the walls were posters and photographs celebrating the university’s 1993 NCAA championship hockey team.
The large windows looked out over College Avenue to the west, an entrance to the Orono campus to the south, and the arena’s parking lot to the east, the direction of Mecca. Muslims turn toward the holy city, the birthplace of Mohammed, whenever they pray.
Women, their heads covered with scarves, greeted one another by kissing, first on one cheek, then the other. They used the chairs in the lounge to divide the room, because their faith requires that they worship separately from men. Children dressed in new finery wandered back and forth between their mothers and fathers.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the year for Muslims, who follow the lunar calendar. The holiday takes place 13 days earlier each year according to the solar calendar. Ramadan began at sunrise Dec. 30 and ended with the sighting of the new moon at sundown Wednesday.
During this month, all healthy adult Muslims abstain from food, drink smoking and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. The month is to be devoted to reflection and spiritual discipline, as well as the reading of the Koran, which was revealed to the prophet Mohammed by Allah during the final days of Ramadan. Followers also are expected to perform good deeds and pray more often than the usual five times per day.
The men sat cross-legged on the carpet floor of the lounge, while the women knelt on colorful prayer rugs. The service consisted of a full raka’ah or recitation of prayers. During the service participants stand, bow and prostrate themselves. After the prayers, the iman, or leader, delivered a sermon in Arabic and in English.
“Do not return to disobedience,” urged Ibrahim Khuwaiter, president of the Muslim Student Association at the university, and iman for the group. “Do not lose what you have established during Ramadan. … We must look to ourselves to see how many of us only know [Allah] during Ramadan.”
Manal Omary of Orono said after the service that the holiday is about more than just fasting and abstinence. A native of Jordan, she has lived in the area 4 1/2 years while her husband has worked toward his doctorate in chemistry at the university.
“During Ramadan, we are to be on our best behavior,” she said. “We are to have self-control and resist temptation. … When we fast and feel hunger, it is so we feel the hunger of the needy. … I was raised to fast, but no coffee in the morning is hard.”
Thirteen-year-old Ala’a Omari attends Leonard Middle School in Old Town. This is the first year that she fasted the entire month. Omari came to the United States from Jordan when she was 6 years old. She admitted that being a Muslim in a Christian community is difficult sometimes.
“I do tell friends about my religion,” she said. “Some of my friends understand, and some don’t. Fasting at lunch time at school is hard if I have nothing to do, so I bring a book to read. But, we had school canceled so much because of the ice storm, I didn’t have to that so much.”
Over the past few years, the Muslim community in the area has grown tremendously, according to Aly Nazmy, a native of Egypt and associate professor of civil engineering. When he moved to Orono five years ago, he did not know how to find a community prayer group.
“Two weeks after I arrived,” he recalled, “I was at the Bangor Mall. I saw a couple that I thought were Muslim because of the way they were dressed. I introduced myself to them. The Muslim community is growing and becoming more visible and public awareness is increasing. That’s good news.”
“Usually on TV, Muslims are talked about in a negative way,” observed Omary. “The politics and religion get all mixed up. We are not terrorists. … The recognition [locally] is better on TV and there are stories in the newspaper. I was glad to hear it announced on TV that today is our holy day. The news is more positive now.”
Nasser Omari, a native of Jordan who recently earned his doctorate in chemical engineering, pointed out that Jews, Christians and Muslims traced their roots to the same person — Abraham. Christians and Jews trace their lineage to the great leader’s son Isaac, born of Sarah; Muslims to his son, Ishmael, born to Hagar. He added that Islam teaches that the Old and New Testaments also were revelations from God and recognizes as prophets all who were prophets in the Old and New Testaments, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
Khuwaiter estimated that there are nearly 300 men, women and children in northern Maine who are Muslims. Most who are part of the campus organization are bachelors from the Middle East. The group hopes to break ground this spring for a mosque, the Islamic Center of Maine, to be located on Park Street in Orono, Khuwaiter added.
If all goes well, next year Muslims may still celebrate the end of Ramadan in a snowstorm, but they may be celebrating inside their own mosque.