As Newark's Ahmed Sharkawy prepares to start the fast of Ramadan, he hopes that this year, the holy month will inspire Delaware Muslims to donate school supplies for needy children.
The charity is one of the first activities of the Muslim Professionals of Delaware, who are collecting highlighters, paper, dictionaries, pens and backpacks for students.
"A good deed during the month of Ramadan has more merit and this teaching may inspire Muslims to take part in giving," said Sharkawy, a founding member of the group.
As Ramadan begins, the Muslim community is maturing in Delaware and Muslims are playing increasingly prominent roles in medicine, government and education.
Anas Ben Addi is director of the Delaware State Housing Authority and a member of Gov. Jack Markell's Cabinet. Dr. Sheerin Javed, a rheumatologist, has plans to open the first Muslim cultural center in greater Newark.
"What's going on represents a new phase of community growth," Javed said.
It's a growth of identity not always tied to a mosque, though Muslims stress that religious devotion remains important at Ramadan. The sighting of the new moon signals a monthlong focus on self-discipline and purification that's expected to begin today or Saturday, as the faithful fast from sunrise to sunset.
For Delaware Muslims, the devotion comes at a time of increased professional, cultural and interfaith involvement. With a half-dozen opportunities for religious worship, local Muslims are now taking the next step, creating new forms of career development, entertainment and charity.
In July, more than 30 engineers, doctors, accountants, managers and IT experts met at the Newark Brew HaHa to launch the Muslim Professionals of Delaware, or MPOD. One of the goals: to reach professional Muslims who identify with their faith and want to network outside of a religious context.
"We realize that there is more than one way to give back," said Semab Chaudry of Newark, an accountant with AstraZeneca.
Range of programs
Not all Muslims regularly attend worship services, though many take part in Ramadan, Chaudry said. MPOD is a way to engage a broad array of Muslims with programs such as how to get into college, how to handle immigration problems and how learn about American history.
The group also hopes to have a speaker's bureau to educate non-Muslims about Islam and collaborate with Circle of Hands, a nonprofit founded in 2008 to promote interfaith dialogue, charity and cultural events.
Co-founded by Javed, the group has enlisted doctors to give free medical seminars and is now talking about opening a one-day-a-week clinic to treat poor people and offer lab work at a reduced fee. "There are several doctors involved and we've been talking about the clinic for six months," Javed said.
She is also hoping to open a Newark center to house Circle of Hands and expects the building to offer fitness and language classes, a book club and interfaith discussions.
"I feel the larger community would like to learn more about other cultures and the center could help with that," Javed said.
Umbreen S. Bhatti, a Wilmington lawyer, says that, as a Muslim, she welcomes groups such as Circle of Hands and MPOD.
"Gatherings can happen everywhere, not just in the mosque," said Bhatti. "I love that Circle of Hands is another venue for that."
In addition, lawyers are reviving a Delaware Valley professional group for Muslim lawyers in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, she said.
These groups speak to the health and diversity of the area's Muslim community, said Jen'nan Ghazal Read, an associate professor of sociology at Duke University.
Similar networking is happening around the nation. In some ways, the groups continue to be a response to Sept. 11 and the image of radical Islam thrust into the public mind, said Read, who has a Carnegie Scholar grant to study Muslim values. It's why interfaith dialogue is so often a part of the groups and why people are concerned about how they are perceived in a community, she said.
"I think many Muslims understand the importance of personal contact in counteracting prejudice and want to be a part of shaping public attitudes," she said.
Locally, Muslims say they're looking for more such opportunities.
Earlier this month, the Islamic Society of Delaware held its first two-day festival in Newark with games, ethnic food and mosque tours for the community.
And in January there were several chances for Delawareans to dialogue with visiting Muslim scholars from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They were brought to the U.S. by Muqtedar Khan, associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware.
Javed took part in one of the forums at Wilmington's Westminster Presbyterian Church.
"I'm showing my children how to remain Muslim and be an American citizen," she said. "It's a question for all of us: How do we keep our identity and be mainstream?"
Contact Gary Soulsman at 324-2893 or firstname.lastname@example.org.