Chicago Tribune: Muslim Event Grows With Population

When Kifah Shukair celebrates the end of the sacred Muslim month of Ramadan this week, she will rise before dawn with her family and attend morning prayers. The rest of the day will be spent in a flurry of festivity–visiting relatives, exchanging gifts, feasting on delicious foods.

But as Shukair and other Muslims mark the joyful occasion of Eid al-Fitr, some find themselves longing for the grander celebrations of their native lands.

“In Muslim countries, it’s all around you,” said Shukair, a Palestinian-American who lives in Chicago Ridge. “Everyone everywhere is glorifying God and you can hear prayers echoing even throughout the streets. … Here, we’re celebrating and happy and it still feels festive. But instead of Eid being all around you, it’s confined to one little area.”

As the U.S. Muslim population increases, immigrant communities are striving to make the holy day of Eid as joyful in the U.S. as it is in their homeland by arranging large gatherings in banquet halls with good food and warm memories. The wide-ranging efforts to recognize Eid on a larger scale illustrate the growth and diversity of the Muslim community as the holiday becomes part of the region’s religious fabric and Islam takes its place as one of the nation’s major faiths.

“Back home, we didn’t have to have banquets because we had our families right there,” said Zaher Sahloul, president of the Mosque Foundation in southwest suburban Bridgeview. “Here, the extended family is basically the community of the mosque. So each mosque has their own Eid banquet and also each ethnic community has their smaller banquets.”

Eid al-Fitr, known as the festival of fast-breaking at the end of Ramadan, is expected to occur Wednesday or Thursday depending on the sighting of the new crescent moon.

At the Mosque Foundation, thousands of Muslim families are expected to crowd into three buildings for Eid prayers on Thursday or Friday morning and then attend an Eid banquet Saturday. In northwest suburban Prospect Heights, the predominantly Egyptian-American Al Azhar Islamic Foundation is renting a hotel banquet hall for Eid prayers and then heading to a nearby restaurant. And in a relatively new annual gathering, Latino Muslims are creating their own Eid traditions with a party that includes a Mexican pinata for children to celebrate the holy day.

Eid is as sacred to Muslims as Easter and Christmas are to Christians and Yom Kippur is to Jews. In Muslim countries, Eid is a three-day holiday when government offices, businesses and schools close. For that reason, U.S. Muslims sometimes find it hard to observe Eid appropriately.

“I don’t think a lot of people can take three days off from work here,” said Shukair. “It becomes a little more of a struggle to stay in that state of mind.”

But Shukair also said the struggle to observe Eid here with devotion and joy has deepened her Muslim faith. As part of home-schooling for her son Mohammad, 7, she said she taught him about Ramadan, and he was able to observe the monthlong sunrise-to-sunset fast for the first time. At one point, he was tempted by a Reese’s peanut butter cup, she said, but he eventually placed it in his mother’s lap and walked away.

“Growing up, my parents never really explained why we were fasting,” she said. “But I try to explain to my son about doing a good fast and then celebrating the Eid and praying for God’s acceptance and forgiveness.”

Ahmed Rehab, communications director for the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agrees that a focal point of Eid celebrations for Muslim immigrants is educating the children. Parents buy new clothes for them and give such gifts as toys or money.

“Eid is a celebration of their Muslim identity and the central role of God in our lives as Muslims,” Rehab said. “We speak to them of God as a loving figure who provides for us and cares for us, and who wishes for us to have a good time as a reward for having patiently endured fasting Ramadan.”

Rehab, who immigrated to Chicago from Cairo, said the holiday also provides a time to socialize and reminisce about their homeland. “We’re so spread out and just don’t have a chance to meet that often. Eid brings us together,” he said.

For Latino Muslims, Eid also provides an opportunity for children to learn about the Islamic faith while mixing culinary and cultural traditions, said Ricardo Pena of Bolingbrook. This year, a group of Latino Muslims will hold its third annual Latino Eid festival Nov. 13 at Chicago’s Muslim Community Center.

“There is a need to connect with people who have like experience and offer that comfort,” said Pena. “For kids, it’s hard to understand the theological issues. So we just want to give them that exposure and positive experience about Eid.”

Shakeela Hassan, who immigrated to Chicago from Pakistan in 1958, said Eid has become a much more festive holiday here in recent years. An associate professor at the University of Chicago, Hassan recalls that in the 1960s the Pakistani Muslim community in Chicago was so tiny that Eid gatherings also included Muslims from Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Now the Pakistani community is so well-established that it no longer needs to hold such Eid banquets. The extended families in Chicago are so large, they have banquets of their own.

“In my perspective, I feel like we have come back home,” Hassan said. “Simple human interaction is what makes it beautiful. As far as celebrations go, it’s all in your spirit.”

But Hassan noted that Eid celebrations in the Pakistani community will be subdued this year because of the devastation of the Pakistan earthquake. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called on Muslims across the nation to collect funds for earthquake relief during Eid.

“We have to keep the balance,” she said. “Here we have our bounty and we are grateful. But we must also remember the suffering in our prayers at Eid.”

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