San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Diverse Muslim Community Observes Ramadan

Costa Rica’s sparse but diverse Muslim community is in its third week of observing Ramadan, the solemn month of fasting by day and feasting at sundown.

During Ramadan, the ninth month in Islam’s 12-month lunar calendar that began Sept. 1, Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex before nightfall, said Sheik Elsafi Abdel Aziz, the Egyptian imam at the Muslim Cultural Center of Costa Rica, on Calle Blancos in the northern San José district of Guadalupe.

“Fasting keeps us fearful before Allah,” he said, adding that the four weeks of daytime hunger also remind Muslims of impoverished and less fortunate members of the population who need their help.

The center’s president, Abdulfatah Sasa, concurred, paraphrasing the Koran: “No Muslim sleeps with his stomach full while a neighbor lies with his stomach empty.” Abdel Aziz was finishing teaching an Arabic lesson with a Costa Rican student.

He wore a gray robe and a white hat, his dark hair and beard kept short. He spoke softly as he gave a tour of the upstairs praying room, where ornate rugs cover the floor and elegant Arabic scriptures are posted on the walls.

The sheik said dates are the best “breakfast” after a day of fasting and prayer, followed by a substantial, well-rounded meal.

Hosam Said, 34, another Egyptian residing here, said one of his favorite Ramadantime dishes is the traditional mahshi malfuf, made of stuffed cabbage.

“Fortunately, unlike with cuisines such as Chinese food, most of the ingredients we have there we have here, too,” he said.

While Costa Rica keeps no official count on religion, Sasa, a Palestinian refugee who settled here in 1973, said some 150 families belong to his Sunni Muslim congregation.

He estimates about 500 Muslims live here, refuting a Wikipedia article that puts the number much higher at 4,000.

Whatever the exact figure, it is a fraction of the greater, mostly Catholic population.

Costa Rican society is 76.3 percent Catholic and 13.7 percent Evangelical, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Lebanese Consul Albert Karam Kayssm said this country’s Muslim community pales in comparison to the large groups in Argentina and Brazil.

The consul is Christian, as are most of his fellow Lebanese émigrés in this country.

However, he said he has close contact with the Muslim community here, as his consulate is the only one serving immigrants from Arab countries in Costa Rica.

Despite their low numbers, Muslims make up a plethora of cultures and nationalities here, including immigrants from Algeria, India, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories and Syria, all enjoying freedom to live in peaceful coexistence with Costa Ricans, Sasa said.

The community built the San José cultural center and mosque, which Sasa said is the only one in Costa Rica, in 2003.

Acknowledging tensions and conflict facing his fellow Muslim émigrés in other foreign countries, Sasa said, “When we opened the mosque, there wasn’t any protest from the neighbors. The Costa Ricans have been very accepting.”

And to some extent, the different nationalities within the Muslim community seem to welcome each other’s practices as well.

“On the last night (Eid al-Fitr), we all get together for prayer at the mosque,” Sasa said, “and everyone brings a typical dish from their country for the others to try.”

Ramadan is set to last through the end of September. To contact the MuslimCulturalCenter, call 2240-4872.


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