ELKRIDGE, Md. — On a Tuesday evening at the Sherwood Gardens apartment complex, Zainab Chaudry, a friend and some children are busy in a one-bedroom, 794-square-foot flat.
Ignoring the others riding bikes and skateboards or the volleyball game on the sand court near the community pool, two adults and four children assemble some 100 bags of treats, to which a small card is attached before being stapled shut.
"Ramadan is the month of sharing with others," the card says, attributing the words to the "Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him," and citing "Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 614," one of the sayings or teachings of the Muslim prophet.
The card also has an Internet address (http://md.cair.com/blog/ramadan2014FAQs.html), where recipients can find more information about Islam, Muslims and the monthlong Ramadan fast, which begins at sunset Saturday, when the new moon is expected to be sighted in North America.
"During a time when there's so much fear, we want to educate people about what Islam is and who we are and what our traditions are," said Chaudry, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Maryland branch, which bills itself as a "grass-roots civil rights and advocacy organization" for American Muslims. "We want to dispel some of that fear and that 'strangeness' that surrounds Islam."
Grateful to fast
It's a common practice in Muslim communities to give gifts of food to neighbors during the monthlong observance, she said, a practice that sows "feelings of goodwill" among Muslims and their neighbors. The small bags contain a date — the food believed by Muslims to have been used by Muhammad to break his fast — some trail mix and chocolate candy.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims daily abstain from food, water and "physical pleasures" — including sexual relations and smoking — from sunrise to sunset. In Salt Lake City, for example, that's a long fast: The U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington calculates as much as 15 hours and 4 minutes of daylight for one day in the period.
It's not just nourishment that's restricted during the period, Chaudry said. Muslims are to "avoid gossip and backbiting," in order to "instill feelings of peace and tranquility" in the lives of those around them.
Chaudry, a married 30-something Baltimore native whose parents immigrated from Lahore, Pakistan, mentions multiple reasons for observing the fast, one of the five pillars of her faith.
"I celebrate it not only because it is a part of my religion, but it's also something that brings me closer, spiritually, to God," she said. "It helps me reset. It's really a time to reflect. It's a time of year that really allows you to have better perspective on the important things of life."
She explained how depriving the physical body of food and water helps observers appreciate blessings often taken for granted.
"A lot of times when we eat, we don't think about where our food's coming from," Chaudry said. "It's second nature, we expect that food (will be there). So it's a time that we are so grateful to God that we have these blessings to be able to be healthy."
Preparing to fast
Chaudry acknowledges that the fast of Ramadan is a struggle, whether in North America with long hours of daylight or in a place such as Saudi Arabia, "where temperatures can reach up to 120 (degrees) or 130 degrees (Fahrenheit) during the summer time," she said.
One way to deal with this on a physical level, Chaudry said, is to drink "lots and lots of water, drink Gatorade" during the times when consuming food is permitted, which is from sunset to sunrise.
Those in medical need that require food and water are exempted, she said.
Chaudry said she and her husband, Saleem, an attorney who works as a legal researcher in Washington, D.C., prepare by tapering off their food consumption before engaging in the "more rigorous schedule during the month of Ramadan. It's much easier to adjust to if you do it gradually versus if you're one day eating gluttonously and the next day you're like completely not eating at all," she said.
"One thing my husband is planning on doing is to keep water by his bedside, on the nightstand, and during the night he's probably going to wake up and drink several cups of water just to make sure he's hydrated sufficiently."
Muslims in the northern hemisphere face a unique challenge: how does one observe a sunrise-to-sunset fast in a place where there may be an hour or two of darkness during the summer months, or even no darkness at all?
Chaudry said some Islamic scholars suggest following the sunrise/sunset times for Mecca, Islam's most holy city, if one is living where there's less than four hours of darkness each day.
Gifts of goodwill
How do neighbors react to the Ramadan gifts?
"I think the vast majority of people that we've given them to in the past, they've been touched, they've been appreciative, they say they've never expected that they would receive these kind of gifts from Muslims and it's helped them to understand the teachings of (Islam)," Chaudry replied. "Last year, we handed out cookies that we baked. The people were surprised, they were very enthusiastic and warm and welcoming."
Keith A. Burton, director of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama, said the "bridge-building goes both ways" by such gestures of good will.
"From a Muslim perspective, giving of gifts is a religious duty, and not just with those who believe as you do," he said. "As a Christian, to me it is a wonderful gesture, just as Muslim may appreciate a holiday card during the time of Christmas."
Chaudry said she also gains from this outreach she's done for several years to those different than herself.
"Communication is so important; it's so important to educate others about who you are and what your beliefs are, because if you don't (do it) then others will," she said. "And if others don't do it properly, then people will have misunderstandings about who you are and what you believe."
Those misunderstandings can sometimes be costly in a nation where, CAIR estimates, there are 7 million Muslims. Recent surveys by sociologists at the University of Connecticut, for example, show that Muslim job candidates are more likely than other groups to face discrimination in the hiring process. And CAIR has also called out the new FX television network series, "Tyrant," for what it said were anti-Muslim stereotypes.
Other Islamic congregations around the country open their Ramadan rituals to the general public.
Iqbal Hossain, who is board chairman of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake in West Valley City, said Muslims in the region will celebrate an Iftar, or breaking-of-the-fast meal, on July 5, to which the public is welcome.
"We usually have 500 to 600 people come and share the meal with us," he said. Smaller Iftar meals are available nightly at the mosque in West Valley City, 1019 W. Parkway Ave., as well as the group's mosque on 740 S. 700 East and are open to students, single adults and the needy, he added.
But Chaudry said such outreach is for goodwill, and not proselytizing.
"Our goal is to provide accurate information to folks to reach out and build bridges to people of diverse faiths," she said. "It's not an initiative to convince people to convert to Islam or embrace Islam."