It's Friday night and the Upper Westchester Muslim Society in Thornwood is packed with attendees chowing down on food as part of Iftar, a late meal that marks the end of daily fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
In all, turnout was about 110, according to member and spokesman Anees Shaikh. The number for Iftar meals, which includes occasional UWMS attendees in addition to regulars, is expected to grow during the holy period.
"It's still early in the month," Shaikh said.
The month will be marked with daily fasting cycles. The Iftar dinners also include prayers, in which folks will remove their shoes, check into a room down the narrow hallway, and kneel as text from the Quran, Islam's holy book, is read aloud.
For UWMS, Ramadan comes at one of the most important moments in its roughly 15-year history: The congregation is right in the middle of Members have noted that their Thornwood location is small and inadequate for their needs, hence why construction of the 24,690-square-foot structure for 130 Pinesbridge Rd. is proposed. West End neighbors for the site are opposed to the building because they fear that it will create a large addition of car traffic and create other environmental problems, such as more noise and risk of a large septic failure.
The logistical issues with the Thornwood space, located in an industrial corner of the Mount Pleasant hamlet, were on display for Iftar on Friday. Even with a relatively low turnout, the main multipurpose room that includes tables and a kitchenette appeared close to full capacity.
During Islam's two major holidays, Eid-ul-Fitr (it marks the end of Ramadan) and Eid-ul-Adha (it marks the sacrifice of Abraham's son to God), turnout can range from 500-600, according to Shaikh. This means that the building can get more crowded.
"You can see what the challenges are just by looking here," he said.
Sunera Rahman, a UWMS member and volunteer for Ramadan events, gave similar concerns, such as barely having a functioning kitchenette. The turnout sometimes means, she explained, that it "goes beyond the capacity of the room.
Aside from the dining challenges, the prayer room is inadequate, according to Shaikh. The room was recently reconfigured to provide more space, he explained, but it is still not enough.
Despite these challenges and tight quarters, UWMS is getting by and is not deterred from observance.
"But we manage to do our best," Shaikh said.
In one way, the holy month's importance is connected to Wednesday's environmental review public hearing before New Castle's Zoning Board of Appeals. While a hearing last month started at 8 p.m., this month's will begin at 8:40 p.m. The time was changed, according to Shaikh, after UWMS made the request due to the timing of Ramadan.
A Major Social Time
The Iftar gatherings represent important social gatherings for UWMS members.
"It's fantastic," said Rahman. She likes the fact that every day you get to see your friends.
"I think it's much better than home, she said. "I prefer it."
Iftar starts after sunset, when the daytime fasting cycle can be broken. Each night, two families from UWMS are in charge of supplying food; who contributes to Iftar rotates during the month. As a result, the cuisine can carry due to the diverse ethnic makeup of UWMS. On Friday, the cuisine was a mix of Egyptian, Syrian and Bangladeshi, Rahman said.
The geographic and ethnic make up for UWMS varies, and is a source of pride. They range from south Asian, to Middle Eastern, to African and to American converts.
"It's one of the things we're most proud of," Shaikh said.
Shaikh also noted that UWMS has local ties, including New Castle resident members. Most members live within a 15-minute radius of the current site, Rahman explained.
For people who are no longer with their families, the Ramadan meets can serve to fill that role, Rahman explained.
"And over time, we become family," she said.
With Ramadan, the social also meets the spiritual, as congregants proceed from Iftar down the narrow halls and to the prayer room to kneel and listen to Quranic readings. On Friday, a guest Imam read aloud the text.
Ramadan is closely linked to the Quran. It represents the start of when the prophet Muhammad received the word of God, which is represented through the Quran. It represents a time, Shaikh explained, to purify by obstaining from habits. There is an emphasis of more prayers and good deeds, he said.
UWMS welcomes folks to meet and learn about it.
"We want people to know us and of course we're very open," Shaikh said.