Ramadan road trip: 30 mosques, 30 US states, 30 days
- 2 September 2011
- From the section Magazine
At the beginning of August, two young men embarked on an American road trip with a difference.
It was the first day of Ramadan, the month when Muslims across the world fast during the hours of daylight.
Writer Aman Ali and film-maker Bassam Tariq set out to mark their month of fasting with a tour of 30 mosques, a different one each day.
Travelling across the breadth of the United States they reported every step of their journey in a blog, 30mosques.com, that reveals just how diverse America's Muslim population is. Here are five examples.
Ta'Leef Collective, California
One of the places that had most impact on Aman Ali was a mosque in the San Francisco bay area, in northern California.
"There really were people from all walks of life," he says.
One of the issues facing Islam in America is the divide that sometimes emerges between Muslims who immigrate to America and communities and individuals who have embraced Islam as converts, Ali says.
"If a non-Muslim embraces Islam and he's told by an immigrant Muslim, 'You've got to grow a beard, you've got to change your name,' that can lead to tension," he says.
"What's cool about the Ta'Leef Collective is they say come as you are to Islam as it is. It doesn't matter where you come from. As long as you believe in the fundamentals of Islam, you're Muslim."
There he found Muslims in full South Asian dress, beards or headscarves praying and breaking fast beside those with tattoos, piercings or a baseball cap.
"For me as a traveller it was finally a place that has got it, understands it. This is the principle of Islam."
Nor and David, South Dakota
For both road trippers the purpose of this year's journey was to define Islam by the people who believe in it, rejecting all preconceptions.
Bassam Tariq was fascinated by the story of Nor and David, a Muslim couple living in South Dakota.
David was a biker, an Islamic convert, who was sent to jail for three years in the late 1990s. While there, he found Nor, a Malaysian, through an advert in a matrimonial directory, the Islamic Pink Pages.
They began to correspond, and after a year David asked her to marry him. She accepted and flew to America. They met for the first time and married while he was still in jail - and 11 years later they are still happily married.
"She left her entire family, her entire life in Singapore to move in with him," says Tariq.
"It shows how much love can really change things and - if you take these leaps of faith - what changes can come in peoples lives."
Basheer Butcher, the Native American Muslim
A Native American Muslim convert by the name of Basheer Butcher struggled with alcoholism as a young man, but overcame his addiction after embracing Islam in 2001.
Mr Butcher is a member of the Sioux tribe, who grew up on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota.
He found in the religion echoes of his Native American upbringing, especially on the subject of man's spiritual relationship with his environment as well as with God.
"He felt at one with his identity," says Ali. "A lot of people when they embrace Islam think, 'I have to throw away my culture, throw away my beliefs and my way of life.' But Bashir believes that he is more Native American now that he is Muslim."
Daiyee Abdullah, the gay imam, Washington DC
In Washington DC, Tariq and Ali met Daiyee Abdullah, an openly gay Muslim who offers support to other gay Muslims from his informal mosque - a city library where they meet for Friday prayers.
It is a story that Tariq found especially compelling. "Homosexuality is forbidden in the mainstream Muslim faith and for someone to say, 'Actually no it's fine - I'm a gay imam and this is the space that I've created,' is really interesting."
Growing up in a Southern Baptist family, Imam Abdullah came out as gay at 15 years old. He was introduced to Islam some years later, while studying in China. There he came into contact with a group of Uighur Muslims and read the Koran in Chinese. The Uighur Muslims accepted Imam Abdullah's homosexuality and he himself never saw his sexual orientation as an obstacle to his faith.
Imam Abdullah's story proved to be one of the most controversial they recorded on their trip, sparking a heated debate.
"I'm just interested in his personal story," Tariq says. "How he's grown and how he's come to that journey for himself."
The Sisters Area, Arkansas
However much the pair tried to focus their mission on individual stories, themes that affect the Muslim community as a whole constantly emerged. A visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, raised questions about the segregation of women in the mosque - another controversial issue for Muslim Americans.
Tariq and Ali had been criticised by friends and readers for failing to tell stories from a woman's perspective and decided it was time to enter the women's area - despite opposition from some of those inside.
The debate that ensued when they reported the episode in their blog touched on everything from a man's right to enter the women's area, to the purpose of the hijab, and the question of who should look after children in the mosque.