Chicago Sun-Times: Holy month unites Chicago Muslims

Syed Ahmed Quadri is late. “Overslept,” he explains, hurrying into the darkened prayer room at the Muslim Education Center in Morton Grove.

But only a little late: it’s 4:15 a.m., sunrise, time for the first prayer of the day. Quadri, the mosque’s muezzin, whose job is to chant the call to worship, flips on the lights, then stands facing Mecca — northeast in Chicago — and utters holy words.

“Allah akbar. …” he begins, a call heard five times a day in the 100 mosques in or around Chicago, plus uncounted homes, offices and public places. “God is great.”

In Muslim-majority countries — 17 in the Middle East and Asia — the call to prayer is broadcast from minarets. Here it isn’t, in deference to sleeping neighbors and municipal code, one hint of the challenges Chicago Muslims face. Not only must they meet the stringent requirements of their faith — five daily prayers, plus halal dietary laws and fasting during the month of Ramadan, their holiest month, which begins Monday — but Muslims also need to navigate the path of Islam through a city that still only vaguely understands this growing, 1,400-year-old faith. Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis once described the common outsider’s perception of Islam as “based on ignorance, sometimes varied by prejudice.”

This, despite Islam being a religion with a 1.3 billion global adherents, several hundred thousand — estimates range widely — of whom live in and around Chicago.

Daily prayer is one of five “pillars” of Islam, along with charity, fasting, pilgrimage and declaring one’s faith.

Praying at home is acceptable, but the mosque is preferred.

“This is the first prayer, this is how we start our day,” said Hafiz Ikhlas, the Morton Grove mosque’s imam, mentioning an earlier optional prayer at home. “This is the first social event, the first union, the community coming together and saying everything is fine and collectively trying to establish its relationship with God. This is obligatory prayer.”


It’s 1 p.m. About 250 men fill the fifth floor of the Downtown Islamic Center on South State Street for the midday prayer, called Juma, since this is a Friday. Just as Christians flock to church on Sundays and Jews to synagogue on Saturdays, so Muslims make a point of getting to the mosque on Friday. The second floor also is filled with men; women are on the fourth. And still they need a second session — up to 600 people pray here any given Friday.

The men kneel — a central part of Islamic worship, the Arabic word for mosque, “masjid” means, literally, “place of prostration” — touching their foreheads to the carpeted floor, and then hear a brief sermon by Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations, an umbrella group of 63 mosques and service organizations in the Chicago area. He looks ahead to the holiday.

“Ramadan is a great month, a blessed month,” he says. “Any good deed you do in Ramadan gets a reward 70 times as in another month.”

During Ramadan, all healthy adult Muslims are supposed to abstain from food, drink, tobacco and sexual activity from sunup to sundown. The holiday shifts throughout the year, due to the purely lunar Islamic calendar, and when it comes in the summer — with the season’s long days — can be a particular challenge. Observant Muslims eat a meal before dawn — Suhoor — and one immediately after the sun sets. Known as the Iftar, this break-the-fast meal often is festive, at mosques or gatherings of friends; Rahm Emanuel held one for 150 Muslim city employees last year and will hold another in August.

At the Islamic Center, a variety of Muslims — Asian and Arabic, black and white, Sunni and Shiite — join together, a benefit that Kaiseruddin points out is not often found in their home countries.

“The Muslim community in Chicago is pretty unique,” he says. “Nowhere in the world would there be an assembly of Muslims like any metro area of the United States: Muslims from Europe, Muslims from the Middle East, Muslims from throughout Asia and Africa, from Malaysia and Nigeria, all sorts of Muslims are here in Chicago. You will never see that.”

Not that all is harmony. Sulaiman Mujahid, one of the men at prayer, says that, as an African American, he sometimes feels unwelcome by his fellow Muslims.

“There is no racism in Islam, but there are racist people in Islam,” he says.

The Chicago Muslim community is about 30 percent Arabic, 30 percent Asian, 30 percent African-American and 10 percent white, mainly converts. The first Muslims to come in number to Chicago were Albanians and Bosnians, fleeing the turmoil that led to World War I. They established some of the first national Muslim organizations in the United States, but the community didn’t really take off until immigration laws loosened in the 1960s.

“It’s grown so rapidly,” said Kaiseruddin, estimating there are 100 mosques in the Chicago area. “ When I came here in 1973, there were three or four.”

About 5 p.m. it is time for Asr, the third prayer. Some of the 50 staffers at the Council on American Islamic Relations are not Muslim, and some who are simply keep working or go home. As with any faith, it’s a mistake to view Muslims as a block of uniform practice. Some pray five times a day, some once a week, some only show up for major holidays, some not even that. Those inclined to pray gather in a conference room of the council’s 15th-floor State Street offices.

The council organizes community and government outreach, and keeps an eye on how Muslims are viewed in the media.

“The media tend to look at us as a case study,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the council in Chicago. “I don’t wake up thinking, ‘What am I to do as a Muslim living in America? How different am I? How similar am I?’ It’s just second nature. You don’t really approach everything through your Muslim prism, you really don’t. You have certain guidelines: You love your faith. You respect your faith as part of your life. But it’s very rarely at odds with your everyday life as an American. I like Jon Stewart. I don’t say, ‘What does my faith think about that?’ If you’re a person who appreciates comedy and likes exposing hypocrisy, you’re going to like Jon Stewart. That’s just the way it is. It’s not always a question of what would Mohammed do. Because lot of observers are putting us in the mold of someone else.”

Mahgrib is the sunset prayer, falling at about 8:30 p.m. in June. The Ahmad family gathers in the living room at the family’s elegant home in Hyde Park ­— Amer Ahmad, his wife Samar, their daughters Safa, 6, Marya, 5, and son Reza, 15 months, the children each with their own kid-size prayer rug. The girls don head scarves but also lead the prayers, a practice that would not be found in more traditional families.

“I’ve not always been someone who prays five times a day,” says 38-year-old Amer Ahmad, who grew up the son of Pakistani immigrants in Ohio. He credits the process of getting married, growing older and — most of all — going on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, in 2005 with increasing his connection to his faith.

“One day my mom says, ‘I’m going on the hajj and one of you’ — here she points to my dad and me — ‘is going to take me.’ And my dad says, ‘Not it!” And I thought, ‘Ah, I’m taking my mom to hajj.’ It was amazing, a transformational journey.”

It was his growing faith, he said, that inspired him to leave the world of investment banking and try government, first in Ohio and now in Chicago, where he is comptroller for the city. He sees Ramadan as a time for him to step back from his busy life.

“For us, it’s a time of community and family and just a lot of reflection on our blessings,” said Ahmad. “We are so lucky. … My dad grew up in a village in Pakistan. He lived his first three years in a refugee camp. He sent his son to Columbia and Harvard, and now I help run the third-largest city in the United States. I spent a lot of time during the month reflecting on, being really thankful for all of my blessings.”

The last prayer of the day comes at 10 p.m., and on this night Nabeela Rasheed misses it.

“I am negligent about my prayers,” says the 46-year-old, a patent lawyer at a downtown firm.

Her relationship with Islam is complicated. “I ran away from Islam and stayed away for about 20 years,” she says, in a British accent. “In my mid-30s, I began to pray again.”

When Christians and Jews stray, they often blame their religions for various deficiencies. Muslims tend to see the flaw not in their faith but in themselves.

“Absolutely,” agrees Rasheed. “Last year, I tried and tried to get back to my routine. There are times I just get lazy.”

She corrects herself. “Laziness isn’t the right word. You get so wrapped up in everything else you’re doing in your life. I do feel it is a failing on my part, that I strayed from my religion. I know I should be praying. There is a word in Urdu, ‘sakoon,’ which is, ‘an inner calm,’ an inner peace I get when I pray.”

For Rasheed, despite her struggles with faith, Ramadan is a time to embrace Islam without reservation.

“I love Ramadan,” she says. “I absolutely love connecting with the community. Love it. It is a time for me to reconnect with my faith. It is about fortifying your faith and fortifying your relationship with God. I believe it sets me straight spiritually for the year. Ramadan rocks.”