It was hard to miss the bulky ring on Mahmoud’s index finger, so I asked him about it.
“It is to remind me to be grateful to Allah,” he said, as he explained he clicked it each time he thought of something be grateful for.
That day’s count? Eighteen hundred. Eighteen hundred times he found a reason to send a short prayer of gratitude heavenward. I think I’m doing well if I do a daily gratitude list of five items.
Mahmoud is a Syrian refugee living in Turkey with his family. In Syria, his wife was a teacher and he ran the school. As the civil war intensified, he began providing tents and other supplies to Syrians who were internally displaced. He himself finally left when his office was targeted and bombed. He gave up his home and his career to keep his family safe. He now volunteers to help other Syrian refugees in Turkey, the vast majority of whom live outside “official” refugee camps.
The Syrian refugee crisis is staggering in its numbers. Over 5.6 million Syrians have left the country and are refugees living elsewhere. Within Syria, another 6.5 million people have been displaced and forced to move, but have not left the country. Lebanon, a small country, has taken a million Syrians and now refugees account for 1 in 5 people living in that country. Turkey has taken the greatest number of Syrian refugees — 3.3 million. For context, the United States has admitted 11 Syrian refugees in 2018.
This week, I am in Turkey working with a team from Hope Worldwide Utah, a small Utah nonprofit focused on international humanitarian work, to help families with food, toilets and showers before the month of Ramadan begins next week.
The Muslim community in Utah have been generous in their donations to help their brothers and sisters halfway around the world. Because of them, we will be able to help provide 75,000 meals. We will provide over 13,000 pounds of rice, lentils, flour, sugar, salt, beans, pasta, tomato sauce and cookies for the children, while also providing hot meals for Iftar, or the breaking of the fast at the end of each day of Ramadan.
My friends in the Muslim community are teaching me about the five pillars of Islam. The first pillar is that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.
The second pillar is prayer. There are five prayers daily — before sunrise, noon, midday, sunset and complete darkness — and they are said facing Mecca (great circle).
The third pillar is Zakat, similar to tithing or even fast offerings. Muslims donate 2.5 percent of the extra they have saved over the year. They can give their donations directly to the needy (widows, orphans, refugees, the poor, etc.) or they can use an approved receiver who will then distribute the funds.
The fourth pillar is fasting, which happens in the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar, which annually is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. Since Ramadan is the ninth month of the year (the month when Muhammad received the Quran from Allah), the start date changes by 11 days every year. This year, Ramadan begins on Tuesday, May 15. Participants go without food and water from sunup to sundown. Fasting is seen as a way to purify oneself spiritually as well as physically — a time to detach from material pleasures and be closer to God. The purpose is not suffering but a deepening of devotion to God and a reminder that there are always those less fortunate than oneself.
The fifth pillar, and the only one that is optional, is a pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj. There are also specific dates for the pilgrimage that correspond with Eid al-Adha, or the “Sacrifice Feast,” and there is a specific process that adherents follow. The entire series of steps takes about 10 days. About 2.5 million visitors per year make the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
You don’t have to cross an ocean to learn more about Islam or to support your Muslim neighbors. There are an estimated 20,000 Muslims right here in Utah. Learning more about Islam and how it intersects with your own beliefs can give you much food for thought. Do you fast once a month? Is it sunup to sundown? Can you relate to our neighbors who fast every day for a month? Do you work on gratitude lists? Have you ever created a list with 1,800 things on it? A hundred? Five?
Gandhi said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.” We do not need to fear our Muslim brothers and sisters. The first step to eliminating that fear, I believe, is to create relationships with them. We have a lot to learn and a lot to share. I’m committed to doing that. Will you?
Holly Richardson, MAPC, is a Salt Lake Tribune columnist who is currently in Turkey helping to prepare for Ramadan.