Beliefs Culture Ethics

For some converts, Ramadan is the loneliest time of year

Imran, 22, and his parents Habeeb and Seemi Ahmed pray in their Long Island, NY home just before breaking their fast after the first day of Ramadan on Aug. 11, 2010. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) Since converting to Islam more than five years ago, Paul K. DeMelto of Cleveland has done all he could to become a more knowledgeable Muslim, attending a new converts class and hiring Arabic tutors to help him learn to read the Quran.

Paul K. DeMelto of Cleveland converted to Islam more than five years ago. Photo courtesy Paul K. DeMelto

Paul K. DeMelto of Cleveland converted to Islam more than five years ago. Photo courtesy Paul K. DeMelto

But despite his efforts, DeMelto found himself alone last Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim year, when adherents fast from sunrise to sunset and eat a communal meal at night.

As he looks to another Ramadan beginning Tuesday (July 9), DeMelto wonders if this might be the year when he finally lands an invitation to a fellow Muslim’s home for the iftar, the fast-breaking meal.

“The one thing that I expected to experience more fully in turning to Islam was engagement in a community,” said DeMelto, a 40-year-old baker.

Like many American converts to Islam, DeMelto changed his lifestyle, quit drinking alcohol, scaled back social ties with his drinking buddies, but still struggles to cultivate new Muslim friends. His isolation is particularly acute during Ramadan, when he feels like a Christian alone on Christmas.

Ramadan is the most social month of the Muslim year, a period of fellowship with family and friends over sometimes lavish evening meals. But many American converts to Islam break the daily fast alone, often in front of the TV set.

There can be consequences when “born” Muslims don’t reach out to new converts.

“I see how the new Muslims are kind of ignored,” said Vaqar Sharief, a former new Muslims coordinator for the Islamic Society of Delaware. “Many of them stop coming and they leave the religion.”

To be sure, Muslims are urged to focus on reading the Quran and reflecting on God during the monthlong fast, but even the most pious Muslims acknowledge the socializing that happens nightly strengthens bonds among Muslims and contributes to social cohesion.

“The concept of being together and uniting is something very important,” said Imam Talal Eid of Quincy, Mass. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that any person who hosts an iftar for someone who has fasted will be forgiven his sins and blessed with other rewards.

Caroline Williams said her first impression of Islam was that it was a friendly and social religious faith.

“Part of what drew me in was how welcoming everybody was at the mosque,” said Williams, a 32-year-old New Orleans resident who converted in 2010.

Yet new and old converts said they lack a sense of belonging, and are left out at major holidays. The exclusion happens for many reasons. Sometimes it’s an oversight or a lack of knowledge about co-religionists who are lonely. Other times, ethnic cliques play a role.

“Being invited to private homes isn’t common, and can be the loneliest experience of all when people speak their native language, leaving us to read or stare at the ceiling,” said Nadja Adolf of Newark, Calif., who converted in 2001.

For Kelly Kaufman, the loneliness of her first Ramadan was driven home whenever she was asked by a fellow Muslim how she broke her fast the night before, and answered “Cocoa Puffs while watching ‘Seinfeld,’” or “chocolate cake and ice cream while playing with my cat.”

“It’s an incredibly lonely experience that I don’t think many people know about,” said Kaufman, who converted in 2010.

To help, she set up a website where Chicago-area converts and other Muslims can contact each other and post helpful articles about prayer, Arabic lessons, or Islamic dos and don’ts.

 Imran, 22, and his parents Habeeb and Seemi Ahmed pray in their Long Island, NY home just before breaking their fast after the first day of Ramadan on Aug. 11, 2010. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Imran, 22, and his parents Habeeb and Seemi Ahmed pray in their Long Island, NY home just before breaking their fast after the first day of Ramadan on Aug. 11, 2010. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Some Muslims suggest that converts should go to mosques that hold communal iftar dinners and try to make friends there. In fact, many converts do attend mosque iftars, but still find it hard to form closer bonds.

“People are friendly, but I don’t feel like I’m family,” said Williams, who worships at Masjid Abu Bakr Al Siddique in New Orleans. She said she misses having the kind of close relationship that involves dinner invitations and long, deep talks.

A few mosques around the country have started to recognize the problem of convert isolation. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in New England, holds monthly “Convert-sations” meetings.

Sharief and his wife hold classes at their Delaware mosque that teach new converts how to pray and other Islamic fundamentals. They are also conscientious enough to invite new Muslims to potlucks, volunteer and interfaith activities, and other mosque-related events. And once the couple moves into a new house, Sharief said they will hold the convert classes and other activities there.

“You have to make these people feel part of the family,” said Sharief. “Ramadan is a great opportunity. You have to make them feel special.”

About the author

Omar Sacirbey

Omar Sacirbey is a Boston-based correspondent for Religion News Service and other publications.


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  • Looks like we are going to have to do it the hard way! You hit it on the head when you talked about being “left to read or look at the ceiling” while everyone else converses in their native language. Hey: you guys are in America. I guess I have to build by own mosque funded with U.S. dollars in order to have an Iftar where the jokes are in English and I can laugh on time! Guess what! Food will be served by a server – one plate per customer! PARENTS WITH SMALL CHILDREN FIRST. No pushing! There will be food for the homeless too! I gotta do what I gotta do! THIS is not a joke!

  • What is wrong with people like this–going outside of their own cultures? There are plenty of welcoming Protestant churches that don’t commit violence, but he wants to be different. At least, if he joined Buddhism or Hinduism, I could possibly understand. He needs to learn the tenets of this group, but FAST.

  • If someone wants a clean lifestyle, free of alcohol and a great personal support system with heavy involvement, nothing is better than LDS, i.e., the Mormons. They fast and tithe and do a lot of positive things in the world. They are rooted in the Christian tradition, so you need not look to some form of foreignness.

  • It is a beautiful yet often difficult thing to truly surrender ourselves to the greater force, whatever one’s choice of religion may be. Be not afraid to become close with the principles of your chosen religion, find comfort in the reasons which have formed your decision. In those principles you will find peace and a sense of calm, irrelevant of your surroundings. Those who have found it hard to merge with different groups, why not use the need you feel goes unattended- to create that which you feel will tend to other individuals’ needs of the same sort. There are many children of the street, many whom do not have a home, many people who feel unloved and alone- let religion not be a reason to get in the way, open your hearts and see- you can create an experience where you allow the same needs to be the common ground for interaction. Let the focus be the need to belong.

  • Thanks Omar, well done. I’m a revert, over a year and a half now, and although I was encouraged to attend everything and learn more about my deen, that is far from the case here in Anchorage, AK. But I bet your writing something about this issue will make a difference, insha’Allah.
    Ramadan Mubarak!

  • Regarding the article, it truly is sad. I wish more people would realize that converts give up everything in a way when they take on the religion of Islam. I would like to apologize on behalf of those Muslims that don’t understand.

    Keep your faith between you and your creator. Know that you are not alone no matter what the situation seems like. I know this is easier said than done but surely you will be rewarded for it. Don’t let the actions (or lack thereof) of your community deter you from continuing your journey.

  • I was blessed to come into a community with a very large population. At the Atlanta Masjid and Masjid al-muminun there are nightly iftars anyone can attend.check with local masjid and see if there are any iftars being held