At precisely 7:51 p.m. on Thursday night, a 15-year-old boy sang a Muslim call to prayer on a stage in front of about 100 San Diegans from a variety of faiths at the Islamic Center of San Diego’s annual Interfaith Iftar.
When he finished, the guests took bites of dates or sips of tea, the traditional way to break the daily fast of Ramadan.
An iftar is the meal eaten after the sun sets during Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims that represents when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. The Islamic Center of San Diego has hosted an interfaith iftar for over a decade, according to Imam Taha Hassane, the celebration growing from a small gathering in a classroom at the center to an entire restaurant — Sufi Mediterranean Cuisine on Balboa Avenue — booked for the private event.
The interfaith iftar strengthens friendships and promotes unity, Hassane said, emphasizing this year’s theme of “moving forward together.”
“The struggle is not over yet, and it’s not going to be over any time soon,” Hassane said. “We have no other option.”
He said interfaith iftars are becoming more common across the U.S.
Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan. On Thursday, the 16th day of Ramadan, that meant not eating or drinking anything between 4:21 a.m. and 7:51 p.m.
“Fasting is about more than just depriving ourselves from food and water. Fasting is showing restraint and that we have control of our bodies,” Hassane explained to the crowd. “Fasting is all about showing the goodness that we have.”
Ramadan is a time for purification and getting rid of bad habits, he said. It’s also a time for charity and connecting with neighbors.
Youth from the Islamic Center of San Diego bring food to homeless people downtown each week during Ramadan. The center also helps families in need in San Diego and Tijuana during the holy month.
Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar, so it can fall during different seasons. When it comes during summer months, fasting days are particularly long.
Marwa Abdalla, a writer and researcher who represents the Islamic Center of San Diego in the interfaith community, told the iftar guests that events like this are what the U.S. needs right now to combat divisive rhetoric that makes people not trust neighbors who look different from them.
“The demonizing of a group doesn’t just hurt that group. It hurts all Americans,” Abdalla said. “That fear makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity and prejudice.”
She encouraged people to learn about Muslims by talking to them rather than getting secondhand information through movies, TV shows or news media. She called on the interfaith community to collaborate to stand up to discrimination and hatred.
Wen the introductory program ended, Abdalla checked an app on her phone to see how long until dinner could begin — they still had 10 minutes to wait.
“These are usually the longest 10 minutes of the day,” Hassane joked.
When the time came, Emeen Al-Delaimy, 15, a native San Diegan whose family immigrated from Iraq, sang the call to prayer. It was his first time at the interfaith iftar.
“I think it’s a good thing that Muslims and non-Muslims are coming together for one cause,” Emeen said. “It’s really nice.”
After breaking the fast, those who wished to pray the fourth prayer of the day, called the Maghrib Prayer, knelt behind the imam in the back of the room.
Then guests feasted from a buffet that included a creamy lentil and barley soup, kebab meats and grilled vegetables, pita bread, hummus and baba ganoush.
Lillian Serrano, who received a community partner award on behalf of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, said she’d never seen an iftar before.
“The importance of focusing on feeding your soul and feeding your mind before your body, it resonated,” she said.
Bishop Robert McElroy, who won a faith leader award at the dinner for standing in solidarity with the Muslim community, encouraged guests to find a way to connect children of different faiths to demystify other religions before prejudice has a chance to set in.
“Children see with eyes that are so open,” McElroy said.
Edgar Hopida, a Chula Vista resident, said he felt it was important to come to the iftar to help get rid of a misconception that the Muslim community is insular, he said. He’s been bringing his family for the last several years.
Sometimes people are surprised that he and his wife are Filipino and also Muslim, he said.
“Now because we live in such a divisive society, it’s important for us to come together, especially in times of spiritual celebration, and break bread together,” Hopida said.
The imam’s daughter, Sara Hassane, 16, has been coming to interfaith events like this with her father for most of her life. Her parents frequently take her to different places of worship so that she can understand others and keep an open mind, she said.
“If you want to learn about another people or religion, go straight to the source,” she said. “The things that make us different, they’re labels, but we’re all human.”