SAN JOSE — “You were strangers to me before. Now you are like family.”
This is what one of our neighbors said after he had broken fast with us with dates and sherbet one evening last Ramadan at the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose. He had joined us for the community iftar (Arabic for ‘breaking of the fast’) we hold every Sunday at the Center during the holiest month in the Islamic lunar calendar.
It is one of life’s enduring graces that prejudice, bigotry and fear of the ‘other’ can dissolve over a shared meal.
While Ramadan is a month of patience, self-restraint, charity, magnanimity and increased remembrance of God, we Muslims need to translate its lessons to benefit the greater society.
One way is to acknowledge the rights of our neighbors and demonstrate our faith in them with kind and practical gestures throughout the year. Sharing meals in Ramadan is a good start but looking after their homes when they are away on vacation, making sure that parking doesn’t become a cause for stress during the Friday congregational prayers, visiting them in hospitals when they are sick or when there are deaths in the family, walking the precincts with them in what is turning out to be a deeply divisive and contentious presidential election are some of the ways we can consistently reach common ground with our neighbors.
We are particularly heartened by the support we continue to receive from our fellow-Americans who have expressed their solidarity with us by denouncing the hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from a presidential candidate. A physician wrote to us: “There will always be zealots and bigots. After all, we all seem to think our religious views exclusively reflect those of the One True God, whatever name we use. If we are to enjoy the religious and political freedom that America has provided for decades, we must be vigilant and willing to stand up – and expect criticism and strife when we do – for our rights and the rights of our neighbors, whatever their color, religion or ethnicity, or if they have an accent or not.”
In many ways, it is our fellow-Americans who teach us the essence of Ramadan with their sense of justice, fairness, and equality of all before law.
But we also need to go beyond our immediate neighbors and engage with the larger community.
Despite the common perception that Silicon Valley is a valley of plenty, there are many in the Santa Clara County who go to bed hungry night after night. Kathy Jackson, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, estimates that about 250,000 local people rely on Second Harvest for food every month, of which 100,000 are children. That’s 1 in 10 people in these two counties. They are not just the unemployed and the elderly but include professionals from every walk of life who simply cannot make the ends meet because of the exorbitant cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Here is a simple math for Muslims to consider on the eve of Ramadan. According to a recent study, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to 250,000 Muslims, of whom about 27% live in the Santa Clara County. That’s 67,500 Muslims, approximately 17,000 families if we estimate that the average family consists of 4. If only 3,000 of these families, less than 20%, contribute few hundred dollars every Ramadan to address the problem of hunger in the Valley, it can go a long way toward meeting the nutritional needs of at least some of our fellow-Americans.
Ramadan is a month of spiritual renewal for Muslims. It involves not just fasting from food and drink from dawn to dusk; we also have to fast from backbiting, impatience, envy, greed, and other vices for Ramadan to be a meaningful experience for us.
One of the most effective ways of improving what is within us is to serve those around us, our neighbors and the needy in the larger community. Beneath the glitter of prosperity in Silicon Valley lies the dark shadow of hunger for many. By being good neighbors and by tending to the needs of the less-fortunate, we can become not just friends where we were strangers before but even family in the best sense of the word.
Hasan ZiIlur Rahim is a professor of Mathematics at San Jose City College. He emigrated from Bangladesh to the U.S. four decades ago.