Ramadan in Detroit: Unity Iftars are building bridges in the Muslim community

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Mohannad Hakeem, left, of Dearborn shares a laugh with Ousainoue Touray, from the west side of Detroit at the unity iftar at the Islamic Center of Detroit, May 14, 2019.

Sunset is approaching and a line of some 200 of mostly millennial-aged guests is pouring into the Ramadan tents set up in the parking lots of the Islamic Center of Detroit on Tireman Avenue on city’s west side, just north of Dearborn. It’s one of the largest mosques in Metro Detroit and is comprised mostly of Arab and Arab American families from the immediate surrounding area.

On this evening, the crowd represents a full spectrum of the region’s diverse Muslim communities. Moroccans in colorful djellabas, Pakistanis in traditional shalwaar kameez, African Americans in more American or western style slacks and button-down shirts, and women in different colored hijabs and some in western clothes while others wore more traditional abayas — all modestly dressed in the spirit of Ramadan.

Though the different communities — who come from Detroit, Dearborn, Hamtramck, to more far-flung suburbs like Sterling Heights, Allen Park, Farmington Hills, and Canton — might not otherwise have a chance to interact in everyday life, they’re making an effort to change that.

Sitting around a table under the tent is local activist, Mohannad Hakeem of Dearborn, who’s heard talking to a table full of young men. They’re all sharing their backgrounds, one says, Indian, another says Lebanese, another says Germany, much to the delight of the others at the table. Excited chatter can be heard all around the tent between old friends and new. Suddenly, the call to prayer is made, signaling the evening prayer and simultaneously, the time to break the day’s fast.

All of the conversations begin to quiet down as people start biting into scrumptious plump medjool dates placed on the tables in plates in large piles and chugging down bottles of water before people file into a large hall where they’ll commence on the evening prayer.

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Waiting in line for food at the unity iftar at the Islamic Center of Detroit, May 14, 2019.

This the Unity Iftar organized by a group known as Muslims Building Bridges, which puts together iftars like these at various mosques around Metro Detroit to, as you guessed, build bridges between the vast and diverse Muslim communities.

During the month of Ramadan, volunteers set up massive Ramadan tents outside the Islamic Center of Detroit’s parking lot where people can break their fast together at large tables.

While the guests are momentarily gone, a crew of volunteers quickly hustle to prepare the spread for dinner before everyone gets back to the tent. When they do, an eclectic buffet is ready to be served. On the menu for the night, a smorgasbord of flavors representing all nationalities. Middle Eastern pilaf rice and hummus; breadsticks and fried chicken; salads and pasta; fried spring rolls stuffed with meat or cheese; corn on the cob.

The mix of food is symbolic of the multicultural makeup of evening crowd, a trend that Muslims Building Bridges founder Babar Qadri hopes will continue throughout the rest of the month.

With the many complicated challenges facing America today, with racism and class divides being amongst the biggest cultural and political ones, Qadri noticed these sorts of divides play out back in 2012. During an iftar dinner held at a mosque in Rochester Hills, comprised of largely middle-class or affluent South Asian families, he noticed a group of young African American Muslim men sitting alone at a table.

He approached a group of his own friends from the mosque and asked them if anyone had spoken to these guests, as they clearly seemed like they were not from around there. The friends responded that they hadn’t. This bothered Babar and so he walked over to the group of African Americans and sat down and had iftar with them. He found out that they regularly attend a mosque in Detroit and just wanted to experience the email in different communities as Michigan is home to one of the largest and ethnically diverse Muslim communities. Qadri asked them how they liked visiting this community and one of them revealed that no one really acknowledged them and that they didn’t particularly feel welcome there.

Qadri realized this was symbolic of a real divide between Muslims from different ethnicities and social classes in the region.

He also saw as an opportunity for Muslims of different backgrounds to break bread together during Islam’s holiest month, and so the following year, he established Muslims Building Bridges.

Qadri, 42, is a physician’s assistant and educator and is no stranger to activism at the intersection of his faith and his deep ties to Detroit. He’s the founder and director of the HUDA Urban Garden on the west side of Detroit, which offers its patients — who are often on fixed incomes — “prescriptions” to fresh produce like kale, spinach, carrots, beets, and turmeric, to help prevent chronic illnesses that often plague marginalized communities.

Over the past six years, Qadri and the volunteers he’s recruited have organized dozens of iftar dinners in mosques all over in Metro Detroit, with a particular focus on urban locations in Detroit, where suburban Muslims rarely visit. Details about the dinner are spread through a Facebook group and word-of-mouth. Food is either donated by restaurants or individuals. It’s not quite a formally established group, it depends on members of all of the communities involved to keep the tradition going.

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Standing, Babar Qadri talking with attendees of the unity iftar at the Islamic Center of Detroit, May 14, 2019.
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Babar Qadri at the unity iftar at the Islamic Center of Detroit, May 14, 2019.

Among the visitors at this year’s Iftar at the Islamic Center of Detroit was Abraham Aiyash, a 25-year-old Yemeni-American activist and aspiring politician, who came from Hamtramck. He said Islam is a communal religion, no one can do it alone, so these iftars are very much in line with the communal spirit of the faith.

They also have an added benefit of providing an opportunity for Muslims who don’t have large social networks in the area to find a sense of community.

Mahira Mariya Abdus-Salaam, a single mom from Allen Park with adult children who no longer live with her, said Ramadan can feel lonely for her at times when breaking fast by herself and how doing so with an adopted community — even if just for one night —  is a privilege.

With all of the external issues going around hate crimes, representation in the media, and the general rise of Islamophobia, surely Muslims Building Bridges is helping to heal from internal divisions in Metro Detroit.

(All photos by Razi Jafri)

This article is part of the Ramadan in Detroit storytelling series and was made possible by the Insight Surgical Hospital of Warren and Wheelhouse Detroit Bike Shop, with locations in Detroit and Hamtramck.

Tostada Magazine is supported by a generous grant from the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

Razi Jafri

Author: Razi Jafri

Razi Jafri is a Hamtramck-based journalist, documentary photographer, and filmmaker whose work focuses on race and ethnicity, religion, immigration, democracy, and the ever-changing cultural landscape in America.

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