Shortly before the sun set on a recent Friday evening, cars pulled off King Street and into the parking lot of the Central Mosque of Charleston.

Outside, women tugged at their hijabs, securing them in place. Inside, shoes were tucked into wooden cubbies at the entrance of the red and green carpeted prayer room. Ramadan, the breaking of the fast — iftar in Arabic — is a special time in the Muslim faith.

Iftars during Ramadan are kind of like a fish fry for some Christians during Lent, but these sacred meals are bookended with two of the five daily prayers. Instead of giving up a single item for 40 days, Muslims spend a month fasting from food and water, from sunrise to sunset. 

On that Friday night, at about 8:24 p.m., the Muslims took a date in one hand, a paper cup of water in the other. 

A traditional Arab feast would follow the first prayer: dolmas, lamb kabobs, chicken curry and hummus. Last week, it was an Indian spread. 

That’s what Mahvash Husain likes so much about Charleston’s Muslim community. 

“Arabs like Indian food, and Indians like Arab food,” she joked.

Husain, 24, grew up in Mount Pleasant. Her parents, both medical researchers, immigrated to Charleston from India when she was a young girl. She recalled when she first moved to Charleston there were two different mosques. One served a mostly Pakistani and Indian Muslim population. Another catered to Arab Muslims.

But a diminishing population and the rising cost of real estate in Charleston put the smaller Muslim community at a crossroads.

Husain's father was instrumental in leading the two groups and forming a single place of worship. She remembered how important it was for local Muslims to become a strong, united community during that time, not long after Al Qaeda extremists delivered the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States. 

"After 9/11, kids told me, 'Your dad's a terrorist,'" she said. "I just told them to shut up."

Seeking inner peace 

Local attitudes have changed since for the better, she said. When President Donald Trump announced his ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries last year, she worried what would happen. 

To her surprise, about 20 people from the North-Central neighborhood walked to the mosque, a former church, which sits at King and Romney streets. They arrived with signs and posters, words of support written on them. 

"That was really awesome and beautiful," she said. 

Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims, who believe it was during this time that Allah (God) revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. The teachings of the prophet say that when Ramadan starts, "the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained."

The holiday is planned around the Lunar calendar; it is about a month long, but moves up each calendar year by about 10 days. A time of spiritual discipline, Muslims think deeply about their relationship with Allah, and with themselves. 

Each night at sunset, an iftar is celebrated with a large feast. On Fridays and Saturdays, the meal is celebrated in the mosque. 

When the sun set, the group took bites of the dates and moved toward the prayer room, the masjid. 

On that night, Imam Shamudeem traveled from Charlotte as the guest imam. He loves Charleston, he said, because of the diversity of its Muslims and because of the welcoming nature of the other religious institutions.

A few weeks ago, Shaudeem attended an iftar celebration hosted by Second Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street. He uses those opportunities to teach. The idea that all Muslims are Arab, or that all Muslims speak Arabic, is a big stereotype Shamudeem hopes to break. 

In reality, of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, only 375 million of them speak Arabic.

“Many people in this community do not understand Arabic,” he said of Charleston’s Muslims. And he needs to use his language skills to translate lessons from the Quran, which is written in Arabic, for his listeners.

“Ramadan teaches self-control,” he said. “The (related) prayers are all about inner peace.”

'We are human, right?

On Friday, after taking the date and eating it, Husain and her friends entered the women's prayer area inside the masjid. It's the sanctuary where voices become quiet and heads bow in reverence. 

This prayer was the fourth of five daily prayers. Everyone, men and women, turned to the eastern corner of the mosque to face Mecca. As Shamudeem led the prayer, the group stood, then kneeled, then bowed their heads to the floor, then repeated the movements. 

Afterward, the women and young girls walked in one direction and the men walked in another toward different dining areas. It is is customary in some mosques for men and women to eat separately.

In the women’s room, the ladies lined up single-file and filled Styrofoam plates with food. 

By this point, the hunger from the day's fast starts to kick in, Husain said. She is in her second year of medical school at Medical University of South Carolina, and while classes are out for the summer, next year's celebration will overlap with final exams. To cope with humor, Husain often sends Snapchats to her friends at 4 a.m. — the messages include pictures of her eating a meal before going back to sleep.

“It’s all a mental game,” she said.

Raja Salmi, 22, said the early days of the fast are accompanied by headaches due to the sudden drop in blood sugar.

But by the fourth day, she gets used to it. And she begins to feel fresher and healthier than before the fast.

“The body is incredible,” she said. “My skin glows!”

Salmi said she hasn't had too much temptation this Ramadan. A native of Tunisia, an Arab country in northern Africa, she is currently eight months pregnant. Because of her pregnancy, she suspects, American food tastes awful to her. 

Ayesha Zaman, 35, sat next to Salmi during the iftar. The mother of two laughed and agreed that fasting can be easier while pregnant.

Zaman moved to Charleston in 2011 from Dayton, Ohio. She was born in Bangladesh but moved to the U.S. at a young age. While Dayton was more accepting as a community, Charleston has been good to her children, she said. 

Her son, 15, attends Academic Magnet High School, where he founded the rocketry club. He's a two-time winner of the school's spelling bee, Zaman added.

At the end of the day, Ramadan is a reminder that people have control over themselves, Zaman said. And that's a very powerful feeling to have.

“We are human, right? We want to do things we are not supposed to,” she said. “When we fast, I feel like I have control.”

Closer to the faith

After the iftar, Shamudeem brought everybody back into the masjid.

He addressed the group with a moment of teaching. The English translation for this prayer means, “to relax,” he said.

But Husain said she takes more than just lessons in Arabic from these teachings. “It’s sort of like a sermon,” she explained.

Like a preacher, Shamudeem spoke about the importance of forgiveness. To forgive, he said, will usher true repentance.

Ramadan culminates in a three-day feast called Eid, or, the breaking of the fast: “Eid-al-fitr.”

Cities across the U.S. have taken time to organize Eid-al-fitrs for their local Muslim communities. This year, Husain said her family will travel to Houston, whose celebration is “massive.”

There, Eid is celebrated in one of the city’s athletic stadiums.

“You feel closer to your faith by the end of (Ramadan),” Husain said.

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.