ENID, Okla. — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins Wednesday, and members of Oklahoma’s Muslim community are working to increase interfaith understanding during the month-long observance.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar during which “Muslims abstain from food, drink, and other sensual pleasures from before dawn until sunset,” according to a press release from the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

“The fast is performed to increase spirituality, discipline, self-restraint, and generosity while obeying God’s commandments,” according to the release.

Fasting, along with the declaration of faith, daily prayers, charity, and pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the “five pillars” of Islam.

Ramadan concludes at sunset on June 15, at Eid ul-Fitr, the Feast of the Fast-Breaking.

Imam Imad Enchassi, founder, lead imam and president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City (ISGOC), said some are exempt from the daily fast, including those who are ill, the elderly and young, travelers and those pregnant or breastfeeding.

But, even when exempt from fasting, Muslims are expected to use the month to increase their acts of charity, and draw closer to God, Enchassi said.

“It’s still part of the charitable nature of Ramadan,” Enchassi said. “If they can’t afford to feed the poor and the needy, they can serve the poor and the needy as a compensation for not fasting.”

Ramadan is a 30-day period of fellowship and “social revival and an educational month that focuses our soul toward the creator, and toward creation,” Enchassi said.

Reflect, rekindle, refresh

Adam Soltani, executive director of CAIR Oklahoma, has seen Ramadan through both the Muslim and Christian perspective.

Soltani is the son of an Iranian Muslim who emigrated to the United States and married a white Catholic from Olathe, Kan., while they were both students at the University of Kansas.

Growing up in a multi-faith, Roman Catholic and Muslim home, Soltani didn’t start fasting for Ramadan until he was 17.

At first, he said he was uncomfortable openly expressing his Muslim faith, out of fear he’d be shunned. During Ramadan, he’d go to the library and sit quietly while his peers went to the lunch room.

As an adult, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to share his faith with others, and Ramadan is an important period of reflection and growth each year.

“It’s an opportunity to reflect on my life, my purpose and to rekindle or refresh my relationship with God,” Soltani said.

He said that desire to grow in his faith is a common tie to most people in Oklahoma.

“That’s something we share with Oklahomans in general,” he said. “Oklahomans, in general, are people of faith. The idea is, we are trying to grow closer to God during this month, and people can just see that we are trying to be closer to God and live better lives during the month of Ramadan.”

Overcoming fears

While Ramadan is an important period of reflection for Muslims, it’s also become an important period of sharing their faith, to foster better relations with Oklahomans of other religious backgrounds — predominantly, their Christian neighbors.

Soltani said it’s been hard for Muslims to gain interfaith understanding in Oklahoma because the state’s Muslim population is concentrated in a few areas, mostly in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and around universities, military bases and large medical campuses.

That means most Oklahomans still haven’t had the chance to form a personal relationship with a Muslim and to break down stereotypes and misperceptions fueled by the media, Soltani said.

“Outside of those areas, you don’t have any other pockets of Muslims in the state that have an Islamic center or a mosque, and that’s why it’s hard to challenge Islamophobia or those fears people may have,” Soltani said, “because until you can meet and interact with people, it’s hard to overcome those fears.”

The barriers to interfaith understanding also are high in Oklahoma, simply because of the state’s demographics.

Pew Research Center found in 2017 Republicans and white evangelicals tend to have much more negative views toward Muslims than other segments of American society: 68 percent of Republicans polled by Pew said Islam is not part of mainstream American society, and 72 percent of white evangelicals said there is a natural conflict between Islam and democracy.

Those demographic leanings make it “really tough being Muslim in Oklahoma,” Soltani said, especially for Muslims who live outside urban centers like Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

“Muslims who live in these smaller communities, you’re more self-aware and more conscious of how you practice and share your faith with other people,” Soltani said.

Overcoming barriers

To overcome those barriers, ISGOC and CAIR are hosting several events during Ramadan to give non-Muslims an opportunity to meet and interact with Muslims and to better understand their faith and customs.

• ISGOC, 3815 N. Saint Claire in Oklahoma City, will host “Revealing Ramadan — A Look In on the Muslim Month of Fasting,” 6-8 p.m. May 22.

The evening’s program will include a tour of ISGOC and a panel of Muslim professionals sharing their experiences of Ramadan, according to the CAIR release. Dinner will be catered from local restaurants.

“We wanted to bring in people, and let them experience what we experience during Ramadan — but without the fast,” Soltani said.

• On June 2, the eighth annual Ramadan Day of Service will take place in partnership with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, 1-4:30 p.m., at 3355 S. Purdue in Oklahoma City.

ISGOC, CAIR and any other volunteers who would like to attend will be collecting and packaging food for those in need.

“During our holy month of fasting it is imperative that we reach out to our neighbors and give back to our community in any way possible,” Soltani said.

More than 1,200 Muslim volunteers have participated in the event over the last eight years, according to CAIR.

“At a time when we’re going without food and drink, we want to package food and drink for those in need,” Soltani said. “It’s part of our faith to give to others, and we want to give back to our fellow Oklahomans.”

Chance to show support

Enchassi said the Ramadan activities give Muslims and non-Muslims both a challenge, and an opportunity.

“Being a minority religion is always challenging, and it’s rewarding at the same time,” Enchassi said. “It’s challenging because there’s misconceptions about the faith, but it’s also rewarding because it keeps us on our toes to work with one another and explain to each other about our faith.”

The Rev. Shannon Fleck, acting executive director of Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC), urged Christians to take advantage of Ramadan as an opportunity to increase interfaith understanding with Oklahoma’s Muslim community.

OCC represents and advocates for ministry among 16 different denominations in the state, with more than 1,200 local congregations representing between 600,000 and 700,000 Oklahoma Christians, according to OCC figures from last October.

“I think Ramadan gives Christians a really good opportunity to show their support for the Muslim community,” Fleck said. “It’s their holiest time of the year, and by being the predominant religious community in the state, we really have an opportunity to show our love and support for our Muslim neighbors during this holy time for them.”

Fleck said Christians, being in the majority in Oklahoma, have an obligation to be proactive in fostering that peaceful understanding.

“I think whenever you are in the majority, in any aspect of your life, whether that’s race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, it’s important for you to be the one shining light on tolerance, and to be the one taking steps forward and shining a light on any disparities, and stepping out there to show love to people,” Fleck said.

For information on Ramadan and interfaith Ramadan activitie, go to cairoklahoma.com