It’s 2 1/2 hours before sunset, a drizzle is falling under gloomy skies, and the cars are lined up by the dozen in the parking lot of the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
Drivers and passengers, many wearing headscarves or skullcaps, wait in minivans, luxury sedans and old beaters for a signal to move forward. On reaching the entrance to the mosque, they’ll be handed fresh, boxed meals to take home to their families.
It’s a coronavirus-era version of the communal ceremonial dinner known as iftar, a nightly observance for Muslims during Ramadan, a holy month that began Monday.
No one seems put out by the unusual arrangements. Certainly not Anam Vahora, a young woman at the wheel of a black SUV near the front of the line.
“Ramadan? I see it as a time to stay away from sin, reconnect with where you come from, and purify your soul,” Vahora, 17, a high school student from Ellicott City, says through a rolled-down window. “And one thing Ramadan teaches is patience.”
Patience is an essential virtue in Islam, and not just during Ramadan, a period of fasting, prayer and atonement considered the faith’s most sacred time. It’s viewed as a measure of one’s gratitude and trust in God.
The past 14 months have placed an emphasis on the virtue of patience at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a close-knit community of faith in Windsor Mill that serves an estimated 14,000 regular attendees.
Officials of the mosque, the largest in the Baltimore area, were quick to shut down virtually all on-site activities when the coronavirus first made its presence felt in Maryland in March 2020.
A schedule of five obligatory daily prayers was canceled at the mosque for months. So were communal Friday afternoon prayers. Youth group functions, lectures and social events were scrubbed. Volunteers developed a system to livestream religious activities on the mosque website.
With social distancing guidelines, the mosque’s in-person worship has been cut from 2,000 people to 160. Worshippers are required to undergo temperature checks, wear masks and bring prayer rugs (the mosque provides wax paper for those who forget). A massive plastic tarp covers the floors.
These and other restrictions, members say, have led to a strange sense of isolation in a community that is so close members call it their second home.
“When you’re used to praying shoulder-to-shoulder with other people, as we do in Islam, and you move with them in all the same motions, there’s just something powerful about that that is still not quite there,” mosque president Ed Tori says.
If there’s a time of year that most embodies the closeness at the heart of Islam, it’s Ramadan, the period in which Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, as he meditated in a cave in what is now Saudi Arabia.
The month calls on Muslims to fast from the predawn hours to dusk, engage in intensified prayer, spend more time reading the Quran, and perform good deeds, all in an attempt to become closer to God, attain his forgiveness, and become a more selfless person.
It’s a communal holiday, as well. Mosques around the world offer extra prayer sessions, which feature imams reciting one-thirtieth of the Quran each night. Muslims begin each day with a predawn meal, normally shared with family and friends. They break their fast just after sunset with iftar, usually eaten in large groups, either in mosques or homes.
The Islamic Society of Baltimore was virtually closed during Ramadan last year. It offered a drive-thru version of iftar, but only on a handful of days.
It was so popular that mosque leaders decided to present it each night during Ramadan this year. Early every evening between now and May 11, volunteers will hand one or more fresh meals to those who arrive by car, free of charge. Guests take the meals home and serve them at sunset.
Mosque members have donated money to help pay for the operations, which cost up to $3,000 for 600 meals a night. Different local vendors prepare the food.
With mosque offerings otherwise restricted, regulars say a chance to come together in person, even if only briefly and by car, is a godsend.
At Wednesday’s drive-thru, Shaista Mohammed helps lead a team of female volunteers, all wearing head coverings known as hijab, in handing out meals of tandoori chicken, chickpeas, dates and basmati rice from the Kabob Hut in Catonsville to the motorists rolling through.
The Ellicott City mother of four and her fellow volunteer, Wasima Sheikh, a retired grandmother who lives nearby, say they haven’t seen each other in over a year.
“It’s amazing to see these wonderful faces again — all without using Zoom,” Mohammed says.
Back in the line, Ameir Abdeldayem and his family wait in a red SUV. The Calverton resident noticed dozens of cars lined up Tuesday for the meals and decided to come Wednesday and pick up four.
His family has donated 100 bags of food to the needy in Egypt, Abdeldayem’s ancestral home.
“Muslims believe good deeds are multiplied by seven times this month,” he says.
A few cars behind him waits Kenny Majinnasola, a Nigeria-born social worker and longtime member of the mosque who planned to take four meals to his family. He is seeking in Ramadan to understand the plight of those who are less fortunate, and vowed take on more hours this month volunteering with at-risk youth in Baltimore.
Normally, Majinnasola says, he’d enjoy iftar inside the mosque with relatives and friends, but he’s grateful for the chance to stop by.
“Things still feel different because of COVID, but people are glad to see each other,” he says.
To Sheikh, the volunteer, it’s all proof enough of the holiness of Ramadan.
She has been praying for the mosque community to be able to get together again this holiday, she says. Even though things didn’t happen exactly the way she’d envisioned them, the results are, by definition, just the right kind of blessing.
“Prayers are always answered,” she says. “All you have to do is trust.”