In Michigan, a Ramadan like no other as Muslims grapple with Gaza

Across the US, the Islamic holiday is less joyous, more sombre as Muslims seek answers to the suffering in Gaza.

Worshippers crowd into a mosque for Ramadan outside Detroit.
Across the US, Ramadan is a more sombre occasion this year as Muslims contemplate Israel's siege of Gaza [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]
Across the US, Ramadan is a more sombre occasion this year as Muslims contemplate Israel's siege of Gaza [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

Dearborn Heights, Michigan, the US – For most of her life, Yasmeen Hamed has been an observant Muslim. But by her own admission, she did not often wear the hijab in public. She was hardly an apostate - here in this Detroit suburb, the Palestinian American mother of four is known for her charity work caring for gravely injured Palestinian children living under Israeli occupation, and she did don the hijab at the mosque – but she stopped short of complying with the religious edict requiring women to wear the veil at all times in public.

But then the images from Israel’s siege of Gaza began to unspool across her phone screen and she found herself traumatised by the violence and its unimaginable scale, yet also drawn to the religious devotion of the embattled Palestinian women continuing to wear their bloodied and tattered prayer garments – known as an “isdal” or “toub salah” – even at night in the event that they are killed in their sleep.

If their grief saddened Hamed, their grace – their nobility – inspired her to rededicate herself, fully, to the Islamic faith that she had held at arm’s length, if only slightly, for most of her 46 years. And so, on the first day of Ramadan this year, she put on the hijab that symbolises both her strengthened faith in Islam, and her solidarity with her sisters in Gaza.

Now, with Ramadan coming to an end, and Israel’s bombs continuing to disfigure the Palestinian landscape, Hamed prays harder, and more often, and she reaches for her hijab whenever she leaves the house just as reflexively as she does her purse.

“With what's happening in Gaza, you're questioning your mortality,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview at her home here in Dearborn Heights. “I didn't want to die not wearing the hijab. When I was younger I used to say, ‘Oh, I'll be more religious when I get older. I'll go to Hajj when I'm older. I'll put the hijab on when I'm older’ and well, I'm older now.”

Across the United States, Ramadan is different for Muslims like Hamed this year.

Traditionally a celebratory time of fasting, feasting and charity, Islam’s holy month of worship has been a far more sombre affair since it began on March 10, nearly five months to the day after Israel began its bombardment and blockade of Gaza.

The killing of more than 33,175 Palestinians and the wounding of another 75,886 have transformed Ramadan’s typically joyous atmosphere into one that is more spiritual, more emotive, and more thoughtful as Muslims in the US contemplate their relationship to Allah, and each other, amid a genocide so horrific that it has destroyed not only entire households and city blocks, but entire bloodlines by some estimates, meaning that there are no survivors bearing the family’s name.

'Blankets of grief'

Yasmeen Hamed
Yasmeen Hamed began to wear her hijab on the first day of Ramadan to express solidarity with Gaza [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]
Yasmeen Hamed began to wear her hijab on the first day of Ramadan to express solidarity with Gaza [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

With a population that is 54 percent Arab, and the highest concentration of Muslims in the US, Dearborn is typically a hive of activity during Ramadan, with tens of thousands attending festivals and sampling a wide variety of cuisines from food trucks that stay open until 4am.

But not nearly as much this year.

At least 10 mosques across southeast Michigan decided to cancel Eid Al-Fitr celebrations – the meal celebrating the end of Ramadan – following exhortations from the Imam’s Council of Michigan to express solidarity with Gaza; instead, the mosques will only host morning prayers and take up collections for Gaza during the two-day Eid celebration that begins this week.

Mindful of the starvation of Palestinians in Gaza, Muslims are taking steps to avoid wasting food and have refrained from posting photos of their mouthwatering meals online; and in that same vein, the city of Dearborn this year cancelled its popular holiday festival, “Ramadan Nights in West Downtown Dearborn”.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud explained that the city cancelled the event this year because it encourages an “electric” and “joyous” atmosphere that might be considered offensive.

“There's no reason for the city to host that event and create an ambiance that some folks might find disrespectful or just not the right time given the blanket of grief that's covering many of our families,” Hammoud said.

Similarly, a private event run by local pharmacist Hassan Chami, the Ramadan Suhoor Festival, attracted between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors each weekend night to Dearborn’s Fairlane Town Center mall in previous years. The event helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions for Palestinian charities in the past. But Chami decided to cancel the event this year because it “felt wrong”.

Dearborn’s Mayor Hammoud said he continues to encourage residents to dine at the city’s brick-and-mortar restaurants for late-night suhoor, a pre-fast meal. But he said the city’s mood during Ramadan has felt a lot more sombre this year, and fundraising efforts – in mosques, churches and charitable organisations – are stronger.

“[Gaza] really is the focal point of conversations, especially during Ramadan,” Hammoud said. “Obviously for us during this month, we're raising our hands in dua and sending our prayers because that's like the best thing that we have to offer right now aside from any fundraising support, because we know humanitarian aid has been restricted going in.”

On March 22, a local charity, Heal Palestine, raised thousands of dollars during a benefit iftar – the meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan to break their fast – to provide medical treatment to children in Gaza. Hamed, who volunteers for the charity, said organisers this year did something different: packing leftover food in takeout boxes to prevent waste.

“Watching them starving and here we have so much abundance, praise God, it's just very traumatising to throw away anything,” said Hamed, who has downsized her own cooking this month and skipped hosting her family’s iftar. “No one's posting their dinners or their meals [on social media]. Everybody's much more self-conscious about that.”

The mother of a teenage son with special needs, Hamed said she is haunted by the images of children with special needs dying in Gaza because they can’t access the food they need.

“I can't fathom,” she said with tears welling up in her eyes. Speaking of the children’s parents, she said: “I don't think I'd be strong enough like they are.”

Finding strength through struggle

Muslim women praying at Detroit-area mosque
Muslim women praying at a Detroit-area mosque during Ramadan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]
Muslim women praying at a Detroit-area mosque during Ramadan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

So numerous were the cars parked in the parking lot at the United Michigan Muslim Association (UMMA) in the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills that they spilled over into the Taco Bell lot almost every night during Ramadan. Similarly, worshippers stood shoulder to shoulder in columns that stretched the length of the second-floor prayer hall, extending to multiple adjacent overflow rooms and even downstairs.

The imam here, Mohamed Almasmari, said this Ramadan is “exceptional”, almost doubling the size of the previous year’s crowd for nightly tarawih prayers, although he’s heard many people complain about the lack of parking outside, and the lack of elbow room inside.

Almasmari said that the number of young people exploring Islam, and young Muslims strengthening their faith and understanding, has been higher than usual in the last few months, with at least five people converting to Islam at UMMA during Ramadan.

“I do feel that Gaza revived something in many people's hearts,” he said. “This is one of the first times where people understood what falsehood meant and what their responsibility is when it comes to holding on to the truth and how deceiving the world is.”

With Ramadan’s end on Tuesday coinciding with the six-month-anniversary of Israel’s siege on Saturday, the Muslim community in southeast Michigan is even scaling down Eid, with mosques skipping petting zoos, and shutting down food tents and bouncy houses, the inflatable, springy playgrounds that are popular with children.

“It doesn’t seem right that they’re suffering and we’re celebrating,” said Qasim Abdullah, one of the imams at the American Muslim Center.

The Islamic Center of Detroit is also cancelling this year’s Eid al-Fitr festivities, with a focus on prayers and fundraising instead. The mosque has consistently seen almost 1,000 worshippers every night during Ramadan, nearly doubling the number of nightly visitors in past years.

Imam Imran Salha of the Islamic Center told Al Jazeera that the mosque typically welcomes a handful of converts in a year, but the number has increased dramatically since October, with more than 30 converts over the six-month span, most of whom identified Gaza as the main reason for their decision.

"Every individual gets this shocking epiphany in life, an event that shakes you to your core, and makes you literally reevaluate everything … and we’re seeing this because of the genocide in Gaza,” Salha said.

As one example, Salha said that before October 7, television sitcoms were one of his guilty pleasures. But no more. Hollywood’s broad support for Israel has made him re-evaluate his choices, as a Palestinian who avoided the death and destruction in Gaza only by the grace of God.

“Would these celebrities that I gave so much of my time ... to even bat an eye or would I just be another number?” he asked.

On the other hand, Salha said he is careful not to paint with too broad a brush, and notes that there have been several artists like rappers Macklemore and Kehlani who have stood with Gaza, and TikTok influencers like Megan Rice who picked up the Quran and converted after reading it publicly online. 

The videos circulating from Gaza show Palestinians quoting from the Quran and reciting prayers while grappling with unimaginable losses and living conditions, putting their resilience and strength at full display.

“People are opening the Quran more,” Salha said. “And now Muslims are seeing that reaction of the non-Muslim to their Quran, and they're saying, ‘Do I even know my Quran?’”

Dunia Alaziz, 24, joined a Quran reading group in February to study with other Muslim women in Dearborn. She grew up in a Muslim household, but didn’t truly connect with her faith until recently, watching the horrors visited upon Gaza and a relative battling a serious illness.

“I’m much more consistent with prayers … and bought a Quran for the first time. I’d never seen what it looked like and I never really heard its verses and didn’t know what it was about or what it said,” she said.

Gaza, she said, has helped her and countless other Muslims in the US find their strength through struggle.

“Just seeing the world as it is, it’s not a good place, and it became comforting to think about that there’s something after [this life], and that this isn’t all there really is,” she told Al Jazeera. “Seeing them in Gaza pray all the time, it’s like we have no excuse not to pray here.”

'They put their entire soul, all their trust, into Allah'

Throngs worshipped at Detroit-area mosque during Ramadan
Throngs worship at a Detroit-area mosque during Ramadan [Suhaib Mutawakel/Al Jazeera]
Throngs worship at a Detroit-area mosque during Ramadan [Suhaib Mutawakel/Al Jazeera]

Malika Bass converted to Islam a week before Ramadan began at Thabaat, an Islamic organisation housed at the Miftaah Institute in Warren, Michigan. She expressed her excitement at discovering “community” as a new Muslim, but also feels the heartache that permeates the air at most iftar gatherings and lectures she’s joined.

“It’s debilitating thinking about what these mothers are going through,” she said. “It’s debilitating, you can’t stop crying.”

As a mother, Bass said she can’t fathom the pain of the mothers of Gaza, but she’s found solace in verses in the Quran that she’s learning about. One verse that struck her in particular is: “Never think of those martyred in the cause of Allah as dead. In fact, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for.”

People of varying religious faiths around the world have responded to appeals to “fast with Gaza” during Ramadan as a gesture of solidarity. Mosques have cancelled traditional events to focus on fundraising for Gaza, and Muslims in the US have told reporters that they’ve shuttled the customary decorations for their homes out of concern that it might seem garish this year.

Last week in Wisconsin, nearly 50,000 voters chose “uninstructed” - the state’s version of “uncommitted” – as part of a growing campaign in the US in which protesters are using the ballot to voice displeasure with US President Joe Biden’s handling of Israel’s siege; Michigan introduced the tactic in the state’s Democratic primary in February. The White House last week cancelled its annual iftar dinner after Muslim leaders declined to attend.

“The American Muslim community said very early on that it would be completely unacceptable for us to break bread with the very same White House that is enabling the Israeli government to starve and slaughter the Palestinian people in Gaza,” Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Al Jazeera.

Savanna Vela, 25, grew up in a Catholic household in Dearborn and chose for the first time to fast this month “with purpose”. She’s no stranger to fasting, since her friends and some family members are practicing Muslims and she’s participated with them in the past, but this year is different for her.

“Seeing this genocide unfold, quite literally, at the tip of [our] fingers has been the most horrific thing a lot of us have ever witnessed,” she said. “Seeing that over one million Palestinians are now at risk of starvation, [fasting] just feels like something that I can do to show my support.”

Vela has also been active on social media in an attempt to raise awareness, joined local protests and is boycotting consumer products that support Israel financially. She said she’s long been familiar with the history of the occupied territories but now she feels obliged to advocate for Palestinians, especially since she lives among so many Arab Americans in metropolitan Detroit.

“It just does not feel right to me to be a part of this community, to observe their holidays, to eat their foods, and date their men … but not advocate and not speak out and be on the side of the Palestinian people,” she said.

Fasting has shown her how strong the people of Gaza are, where some Muslims are still fasting despite the lack of food to break their fasts with. Northern Gaza is at risk of famine, and more than 70 percent of Gaza’s population is facing catastrophic hunger, according to the United Nations.

Vela said she’s always struggled with her faith but seeing the videos coming out of Gaza of broken mothers and fathers crying out to God over the deaths of their children has rekindled something in her.

“They put their entire soul, all of their trust, into Allah, and that made me reconsider my relationship with God, and how I’ve blamed him for so many things and turned my back on him, but then to see thousands and millions of Palestinians turn to him, and seek answers and still hold him as the most glorified is admirable and inspiring,” she said.

Yasmeen Hamed, who began wearing her hijab on the first day of Ramadan, is known in her community for her decades of work with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund’s Detroit chapter and for managing the social media accounts of her TikTok famous son, Ibrahim, who has cerebral palsy.

As part of her volunteer work, she’s hosted four Palestinian children at her home while they sought medical treatment at local hospitals. Despite the chaos, she continues to keep in touch with two of the young boys from Gaza who she hosted during the summer of 2017 and again in 2023 before the current hostilities began. In her interview with Al Jazeera, she marvelled at the boys’ resilience, and their ability to find joy in the most difficult circumstances.

One of the boys, Muath, recently saw a photograph of Hamed on Facebook wearing her hijab.

“Muath actually sent me a beautiful message the other day,” she said. “Here he is living in a tent on top of his uncle's house, because his house was bombed, and he's telling me how happy he is for me and is congratulating me.”

Malika Bass at a Detroit-area Mosque during Ramadan
Malika Bass at a Detroit-area mosque during Ramadan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]
Malika Bass at a Detroit-area mosque during Ramadan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera