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A special time for Muslims

Ramadan prayers cite Mideast gains

Sherif Shabaka, at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center on the weekend, says Islam has guided protests in the Middle East. Sherif Shabaka, at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center on the weekend, says Islam has guided protests in the Middle East. (Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)
By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2011

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As the call to prayer echoed through the lobby and prayer rooms, men, women, and children slipped off their shoes and knelt on small rugs. They were observing Ramadan as they do every year: with prayer and fasting. But the world had changed profoundly since they last celebrated the Muslim holy month.

“We are trying to purify our souls, trying to achieve piety,’’ Imam Hussein Dayib told the faithful at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, women upstairs, men below. “This month of fasting is a month to promote peace around the world.’’

For many, the prayer proved familiar, freighted with no geopolitical significance. But for some, the imam’s call to pray for peace in the Muslim world had more weight than usual. Amid uprisings in the Middle East, the prayer was all the more resonant.

Over the next three weeks, they will come to the mosque as many as five times a day, forgoing food and water from dawn til dusk to learn spirituality and discipline.

Thirty-year-old Nancy Khalil of Cambridge, a dual citizen of Egypt and the United States, said Egypt’s new start gives her something extra to pray for during Ramadan.

“To have Ramadan come during this pivotal time in Egypt’s history is powerful,’’ she said. “We’ll take advantage of Ramadan not just to benefit ourselves but to benefit our people.’’

For her, last Tuesday was not only the second day of Ramadan. It was the day Hosni Mubarak - the deposed Egyptian president whom a million Egyptians had spent so long trying to overthrow - went on trial, broadcast on television, to face charges of corruption and killing protesters.

Like many other Egyptians, Khalil’s parents left there for Boston because they feared the country’s oppressive, corrupt regime would never change. Now, watching Egyptians establish a new political system, her family’s optimism grows every day, she said.

Although many of her relatives remain in Egypt, Khalil said, she had never seen the country as a viable home, until now.

Arabs make up less than one-fifth of the world’s Muslims, yet interest in the revolutions in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and other corners of the Middle East has penetrated Boston’s Muslim community.

Seray Cuthbertson, 46, of Brookline is originally from Sierra Leone. Her Egyptian friends have followed the news from the Middle East intently. And she has helped them hold fund-raisers to aid protesters there, she said after Friday’s prayer service, but she added that the protests would not affect her personal reflections.

Amal Mohamed, 24, of Somerville said she would include all oppressed Muslims worldwide in her prayers, especially those suffering from the famine in Somalia. Fasting helps her empathize with starvation and hardship elsewhere in the world, she said.

“We have everybody in our minds,’’ she said. “It makes me reflect not just on Islam, but on humanity.’’

For Imam Talal Eid, the founder of the Islamic Institute of Boston, the events in the Middle East have nothing to do with religion. He has been following the news closely, he said, but prefers to speak about issues faced by American Muslims - who come from Asia, Africa, and Europe, as well as the Middle East - rather than about foreign events.

A Lebanese immigrant, Eid said he believes the uprisings are fundamentally secular.

“People are revolting against social problems,’’ Eid said, “not because they are Muslim or anything.’’

Sherif Shabaka, 47, who emigrated from Egypt in 2000, said he believes that while the uprisings are rooted in secular ideals, Islam has guided protesters across the Middle East, whether they know it or not.

Shabaka spent the past year teaching at the American University of Cairo and participated in the January protests. He said that for him, Ramadan itself is unchanged: This year, as every year, the 30 days of fasting will give him a chance to reexamine his relationship with God, practice self-restraint, and renew his faith.

But this year, for the first time in his life, Shabaka can say he is proud of his homeland, proud of the people who withstood days of violence to demand Mubarak’s resignation.

“The religion of Islam does not just allow people to resist tyranny; it makes it obligatory to resist,’’ he said. “Islam is like the liver of these people, though they’re not aware that Islam is what’s keeping them alive. Islam is the soul of the whole movement.’’

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com.