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Ramadan Feels Especially Solemn This Year

Shahed Amanullah and Arman Khwaja, founder and owner of Zabihah, the world's largest guide to halal eateries and markets for Muslims, breaking their fast in a Halal restaurant on March 18, 2024 in Manhattan.
Shahed Amanullah and Arman Khwaja, founder and owner of Zabihah, the world's largest guide to halal eateries and markets for Muslims, breaking their fast in a Halal restaurant on March 18, 2024 in Manhattan. Ahmed Gaber for HuffPost

Rosy Islam, a 35-year-old mom of three girls, has been planning playdates for the last seven years for over 60 Muslim families. 

The participating moms met once a month at various locations including parks, restaurants, and coffee shops around Queens and Long Island.

After the Israeli bombardment of Gaza that began last October, which was fueled by a Hamas terror attack and which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, anti-Muslim hate crimes began to rise. Islam felt an urge to be surrounded by fellow Muslims. Her children were struggling to process the war and what felt to them like rising Islamophobia everywhere.

Just a few days after the war began, another student ripped her daughter’s hijab off at school. Islam noticed her daughter’s bubbly personality shut down.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and water in order to achieve a greater understanding of God, learn self-discipline and empathy. After fasting, many join friends and family over iftar, or meal at the breaking of the fast — usually a spread that is lavish and filling.  But with the threat of starvation and famine looming over Gazans, some Muslim Americans say those reports have been weighing on them heavily.

Some said they swapped out large iftar dinners for smaller, more intimate gatherings. Others said they’ve been seeking solace in the faith through increased prayer and through scripture. Many in the community said they’ve been more intentional about seeking one another in attempts to find solace within each other’s presence and businesses.

In New York, Islam decided to change the location of her kids’ group playdates  to Muslim and Palestinian-owned businesses, as a way of supporting them and surrounding her children with Muslim peers. With Ramadan in full swing, Islam said there’s never been a better time to break fast and perform night prayers with family and friends.

“Through tragedy, people come together,” she said.

Arman Khwaja and Shahed Amanullah, the owners of Zabihah, a halal food guide and delivery app, said they have seen an increase in Muslims across the country flocking to Muslim businesses, particularly restaurants.

Shahed Amanullah and Arman Khwaja, founder and owner of Zabihah, the world's largest guide to halal eateries and markets for Muslims, pose for a portrait on Monday March 18th, 2024. In Manhattan,New York City.
Shahed Amanullah and Arman Khwaja, founder and owner of Zabihah, the world's largest guide to halal eateries and markets for Muslims, pose for a portrait on Monday March 18th, 2024. In Manhattan,New York City. Ahmed Gaber for HuffPost

While Muslims make up 1% of the population of America, in urban areas, Muslim Americans make up 5% of workers in the restaurant industry, said Amanullah, noting those numbers are even higher in places like New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

“We punch way over our weight,” said Amanullah. “We are overrepresented as restaurant owners, we are overrepresented as restaurant delivery drivers, we are overrepresented in terms of the food economy — so it’s time that we take charge of that.”

“It is one thing we need to control in an uncontrollable world. It’s our food autonomy,” he added.

Amanullah launched Zabihah more than 25 years ago as a webpage that listed a handful of halal restaurants he knew. Over the years, Muslims across the country began to add more local halal restaurants, and the website expanded. There are now more than 14,000 halal cafes, grocers, and restaurants listed in the U.S. alone, and more than 45,000 listings globally.

“Food is so central to the American experience. It’s central to where we came from. And it’s also central to our place in America,” he added.

In 2020, when Khwaja was a “broke hungry college student,” in Columbus, Ohio, he would use the Zabihah website to try to locate halal food, but it was hard to use and outdated. With the experience of helping to run run his father’s Papa John’s franchise, and after having worked for several food delivery companies, Khwaja acquired Zabihah last May. Since he came on, the duo has brought in $800,000 from investors, which they say is a clear indication of the increasing popularity of halal food spaces, especially at a time when people are looking for community and diversity.

Mainstream search engines like GrubHub or Yelp only recognized halal food as chicken over rice, said Khwaja, instead of an array of dishes and cuisines — Afghan burritos, hot chicken sandwiches, and more.

Since the war in Gaza began, Muslims have been craving spaces where people look, worship, and eat like them, but there have been darker developments as well. In New York City, Palestinian restaurants have been bombarded with negative reviews, and at least one had to disconnect their phone after receiving nonstop threatening voicemails.

”There’s got to be a safe space that stands up for that, you know, in that defense. Again, this is a contribution to humanity. It’s not just our food, it’s everyone’s food. And we’re not going to let we’re not going to let people abuse it,” said Amanullah.

Amanullah and Khwaja speak to a halal restaurant manager on March 18, 2024 in Manhattan.
Amanullah and Khwaja speak to a halal restaurant manager on March 18, 2024 in Manhattan. Ahmed Gaber for HuffPost

In return, scores of people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have shown up at their doors in solidarity. 

“Everyone always ends up falling back to the community when things go wrong,” said Khwaja.

Jana Hamdy, a realtor in Silicon Valley, said she’s also been more intentional about where she spends her time and money, prioritizing Muslim and Arab-owned businesses and shops, even if it means driving further away from her home.

“People want to feel a sense of trying to do anything we can to support one another, especially Palestinians,” said Hamdy.

She’s traded Costco and Safeway for the local halal markets. Family dinners now mean exploring the new Muslim and Arab restaurants in town. Last weekend her family drove over 30 minutes away to try an Afghan Muslim restaurant.

“We feel a closeness that we all are in this together,” she added. “Everything we’re doing every single day is somehow related to the community at large, not just our Muslim community right here.” 

Hamza Khan, a graduate student at Georgetown, said this Ramadan he has found himself trading his private lifestyle for a more public one. In previous Ramadans, Khan said, he often opted to spend time with his family at home. But following the events in Gaza, Khan said he’s found himself yearning for community with other Muslim students, who may be feeling the same challenges trying to observe the holy month.

“That very internal Islam of mine became very public,” said Khan. “I really did feel at home building these relationships with my fellow Muslims and belonging to a greater Muslim community.”

He was on campus all day, some days past iftar time.  After he connected with the Muslim community on campus, he organized an iftar on the first day of Ramadan where he and other students discussed social justice activism.

“We were striving together to highlight the importance of Islam as a faith that fights for those who are marginalized or forgotten in society,” he said. “It makes sense to me that at this time when we finally have a sense of communal agency and self-agency that we need to be around people who are like-minded.”

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