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Muslims prepare for a more somber Ramadan due to the Israel-Hamas war

Muslim men listen to Imam Omar Suleiman speak at the Islamic Center of Detroit in Detroit.
Paul Sancya
Muslim men listen to Imam Omar Suleiman speak at the Islamic Center of Detroit in Detroit.

Intricate red and black embroidered cloth covers walls, the floor, even the throw pillows in Hedab Tarifi's living room in Arcadia, Calif.

"You know, all these embroideries are traditional of Palestine," she says as she walks to a framed drawing on the sideboard.

"This is a very old map. The word Palestine is on it," Tarifi says. "You probably see the signs and symbols of Palestine everywhere in my house."

Tarifi was born in Gaza and raised there until she was 4 years old, before her family moved to Kuwait. She moved to the Los Angeles area more than three decades ago.

The Israel-Hamas war has affected her deeply since it began. More than 31,000 Gazans have been killed according to health officials there, following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that killed more than 1,200.

Muslims around the world are preparing for the holy month of Ramadan. It's a time of fasting, feasting, and charity that's meant to bring them closer to God. But the Israel-Hamas war is leaving many Muslims in the U.S. feeling unable to truly celebrate.

A map that includes Gaza and describes the region as Palestine sits in Hedab Tarifi's living room.
Jason DeRose / NPR
A map that includes Gaza and describes the region as Palestine sits in Hedab Tarifi's living room.

The suffering is especially changing Tarifi's usually joyful mood toward Ramadan.

"It's not like any other Ramadans that I've lived through," she says, "and I've lived through tough Ramadans before" including one during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War that followed.

Tarifi says fasting during Ramadan is deeply meaningful for her.

"God tells us that fasting is for him. So, we usually fast to get closer to God knowing that God is accepting our fasting and that God will reward us," she says.

But this year, Tarifi is mindful of how her hunger during daytime fasting will be different from hunger in Gaza where food is difficult to come by.

"It was heartbreaking for me to see parents were fasting for their children to have food," she says.

Muslim communities vary in response to the conflict

Muslim communities in the U.S. are diverse, with countries of origin spanning the world, from Indonesia to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Those communities are engaging with the Israel-Hamas war in different ways.

In Southern California, the Pakistan American Chamber of Commerce is planning its second annual Grand L.A. Interfaith Iftar, for people of many faiths to come together to meet and celebrate the breaking of the fast (which is known as the Iftar meal).

Event organizer Waqar Khan says he wants to steer clear of politics and has invited more than 400 people from varying religious backgrounds to the meal being held March 17 in suburban Los Angeles. But he does plan to acknowledge the war during the celebration.

"We're going to do one minute of silence for the people who have died in the fighting, for both Israelis and Palestinians," he says.

Khan wants to avoid speeches on the politics of the conflict, which he worries could devolve into a rally and change the tone from joy to hostility.

"The main purpose of this interfaith Iftar is to create and send the message that the Muslim community is peaceful," he says. "We want peace with every nation."

But Khan knows the widespread hunger and high death toll in Gaza will be on the minds of many attendees.

Upholding the pillar of charity is difficult this year

In addition to fasting, Muslims also give to charity during Ramadan, says Hussam Ayloush, who heads the Council on American Islamic Relations in California.

"One of the exercises meant in Islam by God during the month of Ramadan is to teach us to feel empathy toward those who have less privileges than we have," he says.

Ayloush is pained by how the war is affecting Muslims' ability to live out this pillar of the faith. In the past, Muslims in the U.S. might send money or care packages to their relatives and friends in Gaza but the war has changed that.

"No matter how much we raise," he says, "whether it's millions and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of food and drinks, it is almost impossible to get it into Gaza.

Prior to the war, hundreds of supply trucks entered the region each day. Currently, Israel is allowing in only a fraction of U.N. aid convoys. The nearly 2 million people who live in Gaza are experiencing widespread malnutrition and international monitors warn of looming famine.

In addition to praying and fasting and doing acts of charity, Lake Forest, Calif., resident Rania Sbaita plans to continue her public activism in support of her family and friends in Gaza. She wears a black sweatshirt that has the phrase "Gaza: Soul of My Soul" printed on it in white.

"We went to a march in San Francisco to join the West Coast contingency of a national March for Palestine," she says, picking up a hand-drawn placard she made for the rally in Northern California a few weeks ago.

"My sign says from Shuja'iyya – which is the neighborhood that my family is from in central Gaza – to San Francisco, we stand with Palestine."

Rania Sbaita's cultural pride, she says, comes from her father, Marwan Sbaita. Usually during the holy month, he would call relatives in central Gaza to talk about what they were eating that night to celebrate.

Since the war began, he's only had sporadic communications from them, sometimes getting just a brief text message in the middle of the night. Marwan hasn't been able to reach his aunts and uncles and cousins in weeks. He knows their hunger this Ramadan is fundamentally different from the hunger he feels during daytime fasting.

"They will not have a meal, so it shatters me," he says. "When I eat – when it's time to break my fast – I'll be taking bites with a great deal of pain, sorrow, suffering, agony, and consumed with guilt."

Guilt, he says, that he can't do more to help. And sorrow that his loved ones — this year — won't experience the joy of Ramadan.

"We are consumed with sadness," Marwan says. "We are overwhelmed with somber moods."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.