Delivering an embracing Ramadan message inside the Canton Mosque, Mohammed Tayssir Safi, the Muslim chaplain for the University of Michigan, said the Islamic religion is often wrongly perceived as excluding certain people.
"It doesn't matter what race or ethnicity — it accepts everyone," he said.
Safi's message of tolerance came Thursday evening as the Muslim Community of Western Suburbs marked the waning days of Ramadan, the holiest month of Islam, by inviting people of all faiths to share a sunset meal that ended a day of fasting for Muslims.
Canton-based Muslims sought to promote understanding and tolerance by teaching that Ramadan is a time to strengthen ties to God, partly by fasting and avoiding sex from dawn to sunset so that attention can be given to their faith.
"It's that traversing a path toward God," said Safi, who teaches Arabic at U-M and who was formerly the Canton Mosque's youth coordinator.
The mosque's latest community-outreach effort followed earlier events such as a 9/11 observance last September and clothing drives to help area families in need. The gathering came as Muslims across America continue to face discrimination and violence in places such as Murfreesboro, Tenn., where a mosque finally was set to open this week after years of opposition and court challenges, and in Joplin, Mo., where a second fire deemed suspicious destroyed a mosque.
Even though Muslims believe in God, often called Allah, Safi said they have become increasingly misunderstood in recent years.
Yet, he said Muslims want to worship God, help their communities and raise their families. "They're like everyone."
Local Muslims hope to promote understanding by hosting community gatherings. Thursday's meal drew an estimated 45 people, and Muslims are trying to figure out how they can draw larger crowds.
Canton mother of two Sarah Mohiuddin said Ramadan signals a time to remember God and bring together the community and families.
"It's a time of year when we do a lot more prayer and a lot more remembering of God," she said. "It's a time to help the poor and to give to the people you love."
Mohiuddin sought to instill a sense of giving to her children Hamza Syed, 6, and Sumayya, 3, by working with them to make baskets of brownies, cupcakes and dates to give to others. Dates are significant because they are typically the first food to break the Ramadan fast.
Canton resident Khaled Almadhoun, 20, said Ramadan is a time to fast and "purify your life" because "when you're fasting, you become more peaceful and more forgiving" of others.
Another Canton resident, 27-year-old Muhi Khwaja, summed up his thoughts on Ramadan by calling it "a time to internally reflect on how we can be better in every way."
As Safi gave his address, images of Ramadan prayers and celebrations from around the world flashed on a screen. Upstairs in the Canton Mosque, scores of Muslims bowed on a carpeted floor and prayed to God.
Safi said many Americans mistakenly believe that Muslims only recently came to the United States. He said it is believed that 15-20 percent of slaves who were brought here were, in fact, Muslim.
"It's a revisionist history to think that we're new here," Safi said, though the next wave of Muslims only occurred after the civil rights era of the 1960s.
Safi said the word Islam means to submit to God, and he said it contains three foundations: outward worship, a belief in God, and spirituality that involves purification of one's self.
"Muslims are called to be good citizens," he said.
To that end, local Muslims have vowed to continue to reach out with good deeds from the Canton Mosque to the larger community. They hope their efforts can lead to better understanding not just during Ramadan, but year-round.