Patrick Nervig relished a big bite of steaming yellow rice and spiced lamb — and crossed a religious divide. Tuesday marked the first time the lifelong Lutheran had attended an iftar, the meal ending the daily fast for Muslims during Ramadan, which began Monday at sundown.
A Muslim co-worker hosted the iftar for about 20 people at his apartment complex in Woodbury. The fact that nearly half the guests were non-Muslims illustrates the growing acceptance of Islam as more Muslims make Minnesota their home.
From participating in iftar meals to touring mosques to joining the fasts, more Christians and other non-Muslims are taking part in events and activities tied to the sacred period of Ramadan, which continues through Aug. 7.
“I don’t know too many Muslim people, so I was curious how they would come together for a meal,” said Nervig, 29, of St. Paul. “It’s really good food that I’ve never tried before. Got to meet some new people. … I think just being open-minded and experiencing other people’s religion and cultures in general is good.”
Muslim leaders say the burgeoning interest in Ramadan reflects the strides being made in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Minnesota.
While tension remains, Muslim advocates are particularly encouraged by the Blaine City Council’s recent decision to approve a small Islamic school over neighborhood objections.
“A lot of people have questions for Muslims, so Ramadan creates that platform for them to come and ask whatever is on their mind,” said Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Minnesota Muslims’ growing presence has brought a greater awareness of religious eventssuch as Ramadan. Over the past 10 years, the state’s Muslim population has nearly doubled to 150,000; there are now about 47 mosques and Islamic centers, about twice the number 10 years ago.
During the monthlong holy period, Muslims fast without food or drink, from dawn to sunset, as an exercise in patience and humility. They do charitable acts like feeding the needy. They pray five times a day and spend more time reading the Qur’an, often getting by on just a few hours of sleep this time of year when the days are long.
Many businesses, schools and other institutions now make accommodations for employees and students who observe Ramadan, allowing them more flexible hours. Churches and other non-Muslim groups are also increasingly aware, touring mosques and participating in iftar meals in greater numbers.
The Minnesota Council of Churches helps to organize an interfaith program that has brought Muslims and Christians together for food and conversation for nearly eight years. This year will have the most participation yet from Muslim groups, with up to 15 area mosques and Islamic centers taking part, said Gail Anderson, the council’s director of unity and relationships.
Last year, some 350 non-Muslims attended the iftars, including 233 people who had never before set foot in a mosque. This year, even more are expected.
“When they sit down and have a meal with … people from the neighborhood and realize, ‘We’re all the same and we’re concerned about the same things: safety in our neighborhoods, our schools, that sort of thing’ … it just brings down the fear,” Anderson said, adding that it clears up misconceptions about Islam.
Asad Zaman, an imam with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, who has helped organize the events with the council of churches, says non-Muslims’ interest in the faith during Ramadan is piqued because of fasting and other outward signs of observance.
“In the past, people just didn’t know,” said Zaman. “So now many more people know … and with that there’s an uptick in acceptance.”
Ather Syed and his wife, Zan Christ, who converted to Islam, hosted the iftar in Woodbury that Nervig attended. Syed, 26, a loan researcher for a financial company in St. Paul, says other non-Muslim co-workers also have shown interest in fasting during Ramadan.
“I want them to know what Islam really is,” said Syed. “A lot of time, there’s misconception with what’s going on. They get a one-sided view and don’t really interact with Muslims. If people interact with Muslims, they will have a completely different perspective of what Islam really is. ”
The Twin Cities has been a welcoming place for Muslims overall, Saroya said. But Muslims in Minnesota remain concerned with discrimination at work, harassment at schools and other civil rights issues.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis is investigating the rejection of a proposed Islamic center in St. Anthony last year. At least three other mosque projects in the past year or so were eventually approved despite community opposition, according to CAIR-MN.
In Blaine, city officials approved the Islamic school and urged neighbors against it not to be blinded by any prejudice against Muslims — a move Saroya’s group lauded.
“Minnesota has this culture where people tend to be more Minnesota Nice,” Saroya said. “I wear a head scarf, they’re not gonna just come up to me and say, ‘Hey why do you wear that?’ But [Ramadan] is an opportunity for people to ask those questions.”