Ramadan is one of the holiest times of year for Muslims. Credit: Creative Commons/Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.

A story that has gained relatively little attention from the press is that of a mosque in Tennessee that is undergoing a now two-year legal battle. Local residents of Rutherford County initially filed a lawsuit against the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in 2010 during its construction, citing, among other things, that Islam is not a real religion and that the mosque users are attempting to overthrow the US Constitution with shariah law. In addition to not being able to open its doors, the mosque has suffered arson and vandalism, including bomb threats from the surrounding community.

Earlier this month, a local judge barred the government from issuing an occupancy permit for the mosque. US District Judge Todd Campbell reversed the decision last week, giving the center a green light for inspections and hopefully, ultimately a certificate for occupancy.

This two year extravaganza has prompted the US Department of Justice to sue Rutherford County for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, acts that serve to protect against such religious discrimination. They claim that the local authority has set the mosque to a higher standard than would be used for other such religious institutions or places of worship. Simultaneously, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro itself has also filed a lawsuit against the county, and is being represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Ramadan started last week, and the congregation of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro once again finds itself in the position of being without a place to properly commune during the holy month. Despite living in a country founded upon the very principle of religious liberty, these people find themselves subject to arbitrary scrutiny, made to feel other-like and separate, made to defend something that should be inherently protected. They have celebrated the last two Eid-al-Fitrs (the holiday that comes at the end of Ramadan) in the parking lot of their forbidden mosque, unable to convene inside. Will this Eid be any different?

This case is a notable one, not just because of its absurdity, or the blatant example of Islamophobia that it provides, but because it raises the task of defining religion to the level of the state and court. This charge that Islam is not a real religion, while obviously erroneous in and of itself, gives way to an interesting question about the nature of religion in general, namely, what is it? How does one define it, and how does one determine what it is not?

I spend a great deal of time pondering such questions and the place that religion holds in our lives. I am neither Muslim nor particularly religious in general, in the traditional sense. That is to mean that while I do center myself around a relatively strict moral code, I go against my Lutheran upbringing by not associating those ethics with any sort of greater higher power or concept of a heightened afterlife. I can most easily label myself, therefore, as a secular humanist.

Last year during Ramadan, I was living in Palestine, in the town of Hebron. Unlike many other more religiously diverse areas of the West Bank, Hebron is almost entirely Muslim. From the outset, I anticipated and looked forward to Ramadan there with a sort of naïve excitement. I was eager to be the observer, the anthropologist, experiencing someone else’s culture and ritual through full immersion.

While I did my best to appreciate it, the month of Ramadan was not nearly as glamorous as I had expected. Anthropologist I was not, hungry foreigner I was. The entire process of being an ESL teacher (my primary purpose in Hebron), whether it be lesson planning or otherwise, was exacerbated by the intense lack of blood sugar to which I was grossly unaccustomed. Teaching a full day without water or air conditioning in the August heat causes terrible dry mouth! This, compounded by the fact that I was a newbie at the process — this was my first time attempting such asceticism, my first time exercising self control over such seemingly trivial, unextravagant things.

Somewhere around day ten, I began to hide in the bathroom to steal a glass of water here and there. And somewhere a couple days after that, I began to close the door to satiate myself in between classes. I did not need a lot of food, just enough to give that little kick to keep me going. This is not to say that I never fasted again. Sometimes, especially days with a very special iftaar (the meal at sunset to break the fast), I would refrain from food and water so as to take part in the full experience and anticipation. Food, I noticed, had become special in a way it never had before. It held new meaning to me now.

Ramadan in Palestine demonstrated the virtue of community to me in such a way as I had never truly seen it before. Daily schedules changed. The entire city was different. About an hour before sunset, people would flock to the markets, buying last minute food and sweets. For the twenty minutes before the sun disappeared, the streets would be empty. Everyone was at home, gathered around the table, eagerly awaiting what was to come. Iftaar was always a meal to be shared, with one another, the more the merrier! Night time was spent visiting friends and family, sharing food and tea and good memories. I was invited into countless homes, as everyone was so eager to share this time with me.

Partially due to the length of the holiday – an entire lunar month – and partially due to the tight restrictions and regulations accorded to that month – no eating, drinking, smoking, or indulgence of any kind during daylight hours – one becomes completely reoriented toward, and totally therefore cognizant of God. Even with my minimal participation in the month and decidedly different views on theism, my own life became completely reorganized and refocused as well. Suddenly, the fullness of the moon and position of the sun had complete control over my day.

While it may sound obvious, you gain a truly genuine appreciation for things that during all other times appear quotidian. Food is heightened, family becomes closer, and the feeling of being full and content becomes easier in a way. Life, in essence, is simpler. Factors like work and school have much less of a bearing on your mind and become rather superfluous. Everyone has simultaneously made space for the simple pleasure of community, God has joined everyone together. In Arabic, the same root is used to form the words “mosque,” “university,” “Friday” (the day of prayer), and “joining together,” and it is easy to see why. The group aspect of Ramadan is what makes it truly special.

The most apparent difference between me and my peers, of course, was not simply that I had never fasted before, but that I had no reason to fast. There was no God to whom I was giving thanks, no higher power to whom I was trying to remain obedient. I had approached Ramadan from a totally selfish perspective, thinking that this would be basically a learning opportunity for myself. Ramadan is lastly about the self. It is firstly about God, secondly about community and family, about sitting together and breaking the fast. Most lastly, it is about you, the individual, and your own personal desires. I had thought that I could divorce the religious aspects of Ramadan from the ritual, and experience one without the other, yet it became clear that the two were so clearly and inescapably interlinked. It requires a most serious, sincere, dedicated belief, to bring oneself to fast for thirty days.

Thus, despite my amateurish fasting, for someone who is not “religious,” experiencing Ramadan in a predominantly Muslim place was one of the most interesting encounters I have ever had with the religious. I had spent so much time thinking about religion, studying it, writing papers on it, but immersion – giving myself into someone’s practice that was not innately my own – actually brought me closer to the state of understanding religion and theism. During the month of Ramadan, I questioned and grappled with my spirituality more than in any ritual I ever underwent as a Christian.

When I hear about these non-Muslim residents of Rutherford county, I think about the amount of time and great portion of my life that I have devoted to experiencing and understanding Islam and religion in general. I cannot help but wonder, how much do they actually know about Islam? How much have they actually bothered to educate themselves, from legitimate sources, before they went pointing the finger? I am not trying to place myself on some sort of moral pedestal just because I had the luxury of experiencing what I did, but I am trying to encourage the idea of exploration and dialogue as the basis for a productive mutual understanding.

I challenge these Rutherford county residents who attempted to block construction of this mosque to cogently define religion, let alone explain why Islam is not a prime example of it. Moreover, I challenge them to fully ponder the meaning and depth of their own spirituality, as to maybe draw from it the principles of respect and coexistence, rather than otherness. Before labeling someone’s way of life as illegitimate, and attempting to deny a basic right to practice, some introspection as well as outward exploration might prove beneficial. Let any one of them go forth into a logical exploration of Islam, and what do you think they would find? Islam as I experienced it is, at base, about inclusiveness and the group. I believe such values hold a place regardless of individual beliefs or personal preferences.

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