Syed Mohuddin (a.k.a. Mohi) Ahmed and his wife Nausheen Akhter will begin keeping the month of Ramadan on June 5. The River Forest residents will fast, going without food or drink, from sunrise to sunset, every day for four weeks.

Nausheen sounds very much like a Jew on Yom Kippur or a Christian during Lent when she describes what Muslims are striving for during Ramadan. 

“What people may not know,” she said, “is that the purpose of Ramadan is to bring you closer spiritually to your Creator, to develop patience, gratitude and to perfect one’s character. When fasting, a Muslim is supposed to be on their best behavior, avoid anger, bad language, lies, etc. Many people give up bad habits, for example smoking. It is a time of introspection and self-reflection on how to better yourself and your community. 

“There is a special night prayer called ‘Taraweeh’ which is performed during Ramadan,” she added, “in which the entire Qur’an is recited and completed at mosques and in homes.”

The two physicians — Mohi is an oncologist and Nausheen a cardiologist — feel completely American even in the current political climate. In fact, if the next president of the United States decides to ship all Muslims back to where they came from, he’d have to send Mohi to Virginia because that’s where he was born. Likewise, Nausheen’s parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 1, and she grew up in the western suburbs.

Nausheen and Mohi are very aware, especially these days, that they are perceived as different. When asked about her headscarf, Nausheen said, “I’ve been wearing a hijab for 20 years now. I often forget that I’m wearing a scarf because it’s just been a part of me for so many years, but I’m a little more conscious of it in this current political climate. When I meet someone new, I make sure that there is no apprehension or that they are not scared of me. Maybe they’ve never met a Muslim.”

On the other hand, she added, “Because I’ve never lived outside the U.S.,” she added, “I see myself as 100% American. When I go back to India every summer to stay connected with family, I sometimes feel like a foreigner.”

Mohi feels completely American as well but in a different way. He lived in India from the time he was in the third grade until he graduated from high school. 

“When I was in India,” he recalled, “I never felt like I was not American. My first three years there I felt very much like a foreigner. I used to look forward to my father sending me the scores of the NFL games every week. Even after learning to speak Urdu, I was Indian but a different Indian. Just like here, I’m an American but I’m a different American. I’m very comfortable with the idea that I’m an American.”

Being a faithful Muslim and at the same time a loyal American, he observed, is completely compatible. 

“Sometimes when you try to forge your connection with God,” he acknowledged, “people can look at you like, ‘What’s this guy all about?’ People might look at you as being kind of weird for doing that.”

In describing what “forging a connection with God” can look like, he sounds like any other religious person in Oak Park and River Forest. 

“Aspirationally,” he said, “I want to be as good a Muslim as I can, and that goes beyond the ritual and the prayers. It goes to the idea that when I go to see my patients, I see that as a God-given responsibility to take care of them to the best of my ability.

“One thing about being a Muslim that I always feel conscious about,” he added, “is that when you are a minority, it’s very possible for a person to look at you and project what you are onto the whole Muslim community. It therefore places upon you a burden of representation that may not be fair. One of my daughters came to me and asked, ‘Why is there a Donald Trump in this world?’ What she was asking was, ‘How can people prey on fear so much?’ I answered, ‘The people who most easily fall prey to that are people who never interact one on one with someone who is different.’

“It’s a lot easier to scare somebody who’s never met you before,” Mohi explained, “than it is for someone you’ve met one-on-one and had a face-to-face conversation with. My message to my daughter was, ‘Be good, work hard, be kind and just be yourself. The more these interactions happen, the more we will overcome the fear that people have.'”

Last year, powerful examples of this took place, first at Oak Park Temple and then at the Islamic Foundation Mosque in Villa Park. The meal that breaks the fast every evening at sundown during Ramadan is called an “iftar,” Nausheen explained, and Muslims like to have that meal with their Muslim friends and neighbors. When members of Oak Park Temple heard that Mohi, Nausheen and a group of friends too large to fit in one of their homes were looking for a larger space, the Jewish congregation on Harlem offered to let them use their hall.

The experience of Muslims and Jews breaking bread together was so meaningful, that Mohi and Nausheen, who are both Sunday school teachers at the Islamic Foundation, and other Oak Park Muslim and Jewish families, decided to bring their youth together to get to know each other better. They called the gathering “An Evening of Tzedakah and Sadaqah.” 

“Tzedakah,” Nausheen said, “is the Hebrew word for charity, and Sadaqah is Arabic for charity as well. We talked about the concept of charity, interacted with pizza and made sandwiches for a Christian mission on the West Side of Chicago.”

News of the event spread “like wildfire” through the Muslim community in the western suburbs, she said, and when they repeated the event in Villa Park, this time with the theme of hospitality and welcoming refugees, over 250 people showed up.

Differences exist between the way Muslims, Jews and Christians view God, Nausheen said, but they are often exaggerated. 

“How they often portray Muslims on TV is true for only 1 percent of people who say they are Muslim,” she noted. “What is most important is to try to get to know your neighbor. Try to understand that people’s hopes and dreams are very similar, that you can get to know yourself by getting to know someone who may seem different, that we may have a lot more in common than you realize.”

“What I tell my non-Muslim friends,” added Mohi, “is don’t assume anything about me. If you have a question, just ask me.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...