After a day of not eating a bite or even taking a sip of water because it’s Ramadan, Irfan Ali looks forward to breaking his daily fast with a traditional meal known as an iftar.

Like millions of Muslims, Ali is observing the holiday during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar that calls for abstaining from food and drink from dawn to sunset. This year, Ramadan falls between May 5 and June 4.

Across the U.S., an increasing number of mosques and Islamic Centers are extending hospitality to non-Muslims by inviting them to community iftars and giving them a chance to learn about Islam from their Muslim neighbors.

As a member of the board of the Eastern Twin Cities Islamic Center in suburban St. Paul, Minn., Ali has participated in such interfaith iftars for eight years.

“This meal allows us to interact with people who are curious and want to know more. In our daily lives, we are members of the same community. But it’s awkward for the average person to ask me about my religion,” said Ali, 48, who was born in Pakistan, came to the U.S. for college and stayed to work as an engineer at a medical device company.

“When we sit across the table from one another and have conversations, we build bridges,” he added. “Food is a great icebreaker.”

‘Ask Us Anything’

Ali’s mosque is one of 25 Islamic communities across Minnesota that participate in Taking Heart, a program of interfaith iftars co-sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

Now in its 15th year, Taking Heart is still tabulating final numbers from this year’s iftars. But last year, 1,400 people of all faiths participated in the sunset dinners. The meals, often catered by local restaurants, are free to guests.

Before they arrive, attendees are surveyed about their motivation for attending. “Many indicate they have never been in a mosque before. The leading reason for attending that we hear is that people want to show solidarity with the Muslim community,” said Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert, 66, an Episcopal priest who coordinates the Taking Heart program.

“Each mosque has its own personality and does a program that reflects it. There’s always some kind of presentation with basics about Islam and Ramadan, an opportunity for visitors to witness prayer and then the breaking of the fast and the meal,” she said.

Don Nielsen, 66, works in IT support for the Minneapolis public schools and frequently interacts with Muslim students and colleagues. He and his wife attended their first iftar last year and attended a second this month.

“Everyone was so friendly. They said, ‘ask us anything,’” Nelson noted. “I met someone at my table who does what I do at a charter school and it was fun and interesting to make connections.”

Starting Points

Across the nation, many governors, mayors and other civic leaders sponsor or attend interfaith iftars during Ramadan. President Donald Trump hosted the annual White House iftar on May 13 and the three Muslim members of Congress invited their Capitol Hill colleagues to the traditional fast-breaking meal that they hosted on May 20. Shoulder to Shoulder, a national organization established by faith leaders to thwart discrimination and violence against Muslims, collected a state-by-state listing of more than 150 interfaith iftars and created a guidebook for Muslim communities preparing to host such events.

“Going to a dinner won’t change someone’s mind or make them think completely differently, but it can challenge preconceived notions,” said Catherine Orsborn, executive director of Shoulder to Shoulder. “Maybe it will make those not from Muslim communities more likely to speak out when they hear bigoted language in the future. These iftars are starting points for relationships and relationships can be transformational.”

Opportunities for Engagement

While the U.S. Census does not ask respondents about their religion, a 2017 report by Pew Research Center estimated that about 3.5 million Muslims reside in the U.S., making up a little more than one percent of the population.

Many cities and smaller towns with colleges, military bases and medical campuses have Muslim communities, but there are still large parts of the country with few or no Muslim residents.

For example, the Muslim population in Oklahoma is small, but that’s why interfaith outreach is important, according to Adam Soltani, executive director of the state’s Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We try to create opportunities for engagement. Research shows people who know a Muslim are far less likely to feel animosity,” said Soltani, the son of an Iranian Muslim immigrant and a Kansas Catholic who grew up in a multi-faith home and started observing Ramadan as a teenager.

For the past five years, the Muslim community of Oklahoma City has invited local elected officials to an iftar. Held this year on May 11, the meal, catered by a local Muslim-owned restaurant, attracted two mayors and an assortment of city, county and state leaders. For the first time, a member of Congress, Democrat Kendra Horn, joined the event.

“We owe it to our elected leaders to help them understand us so they can represent all the people of Oklahoma,” Soltani said. “When we break bread together, people are willing to put down their biases and see us.”

In the Face of Islamophobia

This year, Ramadan comes at a time of recent tension. Just weeks ago was the massacre at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. A 2017 FBI report noted that U.S. hate crimes increased for the third consecutive year, with a 23% surge in religion-based hate crimes.

With examples of Islamophobia in the news, for the first time the mosque that Irfan Ali attends has hired security during Ramadan.

“We have to acknowledge the element of reality right now; this world is what it is and we are not the only religious group targeted,” Ali said. “But I believe most people want to reach out and work to better understand each other. We can transcend labels and that’s critical for us and the next generation.”

5 Things to Know for Those Attending Their First Iftar

1. The Muslim community is diverse. Muslims have lived in the United States since before the American Revolution. A 2017 study by the Institute for Social Policy found that half of American Muslims are native-born while the other 50% are foreign born.

2. Muslims hail from many ethnic backgrounds and countries, but perform their religious rites, prayers and worship in Arabic, the language of the Quran, the Islamic holy book.

3. Muslims greet each other by saying As-Salamu Alaykum (“Peace be unto you”) with the standard response, Walaykum Salaam (“And unto you peace”).

4. Some Muslims do not shake hands with people of the opposite gender; be prepared to say hello and nod your head in greeting.

5. Both male and female visitors should choose clothing that covers shoulders, upper arms and knees. Women should be prepared to cover their heads before entering the prayer space. Everyone who enters the prayer space should remove their shoes.