Don't believe what you read or hear in the news about Muslims. "Instead of taking it from the media, it's better to take it from people who are educated in the religion," said imam Mohamed Ibrahim, speaking in Somali and using a translator, at an iftar gathering Monday night at the Maine Muslim Community Center in Portland.
Attending were not just the community center's regular congregants, but community members, neighborhood residents, and city officials (whose ranking member was Police Chief Mike Sauschuck).
The iftar breaks the fast that observant Muslims keep between sunup and sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed). The community center, which includes a mosque, has been in its location at the corner of Fox and Anderson streets since 2007; it was in May 2011 that the members were able to buy the building, and renovations finished last August. So the gathering marked an anniversary of sorts — as well as an opportunity for further engagement between the Muslim community and the wider population of Portland.
Recalling the support the group found when, shortly after the building was purchased, it was defaced with graffiti in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden by American troops, board president Mohamud Mohamed said the center wants to welcome neighbors all the time, not just in crises. "We don't need the people only the difficulty day," he said.
The solution, he proposed, was one laid out in a proverb he translated as: "The animal they understand each other when they sniff each other. The people understand each other when they talk together."
The gratitude to those who attended from among the Muslim leaders was palpable — and oft-repeated in remarks from several of them — and the welcome was genuine, filled with smiles and excellent food. (A surprise: lasagna, which entered Somali cuisine through Italian colonizers.)
But there was an element of defensiveness as well. While inviting attendees to return, and noting that any community members who are interested may visit at any time, Imam Ibrahim cautioned against believing stereotypes and fear-mongering. "Islam is a religion of peace," he said.
This was perhaps most vividly represented when, partway through the meal, the muezzin's call resounded through the building, and worshipers stood up from their plates or came in from outside. Lining up on the carpet, facing the mihrab (the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca), roughly 70 men and boys (women pray separately) bowed and knelt, pressing their foreheads to the ground while whispering prayers.
This weekend will see the observance of Eid al-Fitr, the really big feast and community gathering marking the end of Ramadan; the exact timing depends on when the crescent moon is first sighted here in Portland, and the location of the observance is still being determined because of scheduling conflicts at the Portland Expo, where celebrations have been held in the past.