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What happens when tragedy strikes Muslims during Ramadan

A woman lays flowers outside the Muslim Welfare House near the scene of the attack in London. Worshipers were struck by a van as they were leaving Finsbury Park mosque after Ramadan prayers. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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News of two recent attacks on Muslims spread quickly as they unfolded within a 24-hour span. On Sunday, a teenage girl’s body was found in a pond near her mosque in Virginia. Another attack took place in London on Monday when a man drove a van into pedestrians outside a mosque.

Vigils for Nabra Hassanen, the teenager killed in Virginia, will be held in several cities this week, including New York, Philadelphia and Dallas. Fairfax County police said her killing was probably a “road rage incident,” although many Muslims, including her father, believe she was targeted because of her religion.

The attacks took place during Ramadan, a month considered holy by Muslims, who are expected to fast from dawn to sunset, pray, recite the Koran and give charitably.

“Ramadan is supposed to be a month of peace in every conceivable way,” said Qasim Rashid, a national spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, a sect of Islam. “For this to happen during a month of peace is even more painful.”

Nabra Hassanen was assaulted and killed near her mosque in Virginia

Muslims believe that the Koran was revealed to Muhammad, considered the founder of Islam, during Ramadan. The month, based on a lunar calendar, concludes with the feast-like celebration Eid al-Fitr, which is expected to fall within the next week.

Those who died while leaving their mosque would be considered martyrs in Islam and are elevated in paradise, said Azam Akram, an imam at As-Sadiq Mosque in Chicago.

Some extremist groups have distorted martyrdom to mean those who die while carrying out acts of terrorism, but Akram says a martyr is someone who dies because of their faith.

Islam, he said, came at a time when people were losing life and property, and the Koran gave them guidance for how to cope with a constant state of loss. Muslims also look to the life of Muhammad, who some say lost up to 13 children. Persecution, Akram said, is at the heart of Islam, as many of its early converts were killed.

“Gone are the days when things were civil, due to ignorance, because people don’t know what we believe,” Akram said.

Ramadan, he said, is a time when God’s mercy is more pronounced, the gates of hell are considered closed and Satan is chained. Families find comfort in the idea that one of the many gates to heaven is for people who die during Ramadan. There’s a heightened sense of spirituality during Ramadan, even for many Muslims who don’t pray during the year, he said.

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When someone dies, many Muslims will cite a verse in the Koran that reminds people that this life is temporary and that while they are here on Earth, they should lead a meaningful life, said Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University.

“It reminds us of the inevitability of our own mortality, to see that we’re here not permanently but here for a short while,” Ahmed said.

Muslims are supposed to face death with a sense of stoicism and not be overwhelmed with emotion, he said, because they are going to a better place with God.

“Tragedy effects us all in the same way. You can’t read a verse and assume you’ll feel better,” Ahmed said. “What religion does, what philosophy does is helps us try to make sense of it and overcome the tragedy.”

During Ramadan, mosques host nightly prayers, and it helps to have a built-in schedule of prayers for those who have recently died, said Asifa Quraishi-Landes, who teaches Islamic and constitutional law at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

The grief is the same as it would be for any other religious community, she said. There’s an added sense of fear of Islamophobia, she said, that “ratchets up the fear factor. But tragedies are tragedies; loss of human life is loss, no matter what community.”

The Pew Research Center, which estimates that Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3.3 million people, has shown that Americans’ apprehension about Islam has increased sharply with the rise of the Islamic State. About 60 percent of Americans said Muslims face “a lot” of discrimination, and about half think at least “some” Muslims in the United States are anti-American, according to a 2016 Pew survey.

Many Muslims have said they have felt a more hostile climate in the past few years, going back to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and continuing through the election with anti-Muslim rhetoric. They say people often are unable to distinguish between radical Islamist militants, such as those associated with the Islamic State, and Muslims who have no extremist ties.

Reported hate crimes against Muslims grew in 2015 by about 67 percent, according to the most recent FBI statistics. Last month, two men were killed on a train in Portland after they defended two women who received anti-Muslim insults.

Before her death, Nabra and other teenagers were going out to eat after evening prayers, something that many kids associate Ramadan in America with, said Sameera Ahmed, executive director of the Family and Youth Institute.

She said some specific verses from the Koran that are being shared include “On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear” (2:286), “Verily after hardship comes ease” (94:6), and “Say, ‘Never will we be struck except by what Allah has decreed for us; He is our protector. And upon Allah let the believers rely’” (9:51). These verses, she said, remind Muslims that no matter the pain they feel, they can handle it, that there will be a time of ease, and that death is decreed by God.

“Ramadan is a special time for Muslims because people are trying to get closer to God, strengthening their relationships with each other, and trying to improve who they are as human beings,” Ahmed said. “These incidents can make the struggle harder for some individuals.”

There is also a greater sense of community, she said, because many are seeing each other when they attend mosques on a daily basis.

Nabra’s death on Sunday quickly drew a mix of grief and outrage from the Muslim community in the United States, said Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

“There was a cry of heartbreak and of agony,” he said. “The response was, this could be any of our daughters. It transcends the divisions in the Muslim community around ethnicity and political persuasions.”

Safi said he hopes imams across the country will speak about racism and xenophobia targeting all people of color.

“This isn’t about finding the right verse in the Koran,” he said. “If our religion is to have meaning and rigor and beauty and depth and relevance, it’s got to have something to say to the suffering of these different communities, including their own.”