In a carpeted prayer hall illuminated by hints of green lights, a group of several dozen worshippers stand shoulder to shoulder inside the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. It's late at night, long after they've broken their fast with a sundown meal. Now, they're here for one of the most sacred rituals for many Muslims across the world: Tarawih prayers.

The ritual of Tarawih, a night prayer performed only during Ramadan, includes the entire recitation of the Quran over the course of the month. For worshippers, it brings a mix of both calm and focus that can go on for hours at a time.

Imam Abdulqadir Farah, who is with the ISBCC, says the only thing that would top the sacred time of Ramadan is the Hajj — that’s the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are required to undertake if they have the means and ability, according to the faith's pillars.

“But because that doesn’t take place here, or majority of the countries, it only takes place in Saudi [Arabia] where you are required to visit once in your lifetime, maybe that’s a bigger holiday if you were to be in the Holy Land,” he said. “But as far as Muslims elsewhere are concerned, obviously Ramadan is the biggest month, of course.”

A group of worshippers, some standing and some sitting, pray in a room highlighted with green lights.
Worshippers gather for prayers at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.
Esteban Bustillos GBH News

This year, Ramadan has come with a bittersweet tinge for many worshippers as a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in the Gaza Strip, where a majority of residents are Muslims.

That stems from a war that started on Oct. 7 when Hamas, which oversees the Gaza Strip, attacked Israel, killing more than 1,000 Israelis and taking scores of civilian hostages who remain in captivity. In the scope of Israel's military response, an estimated 30,000 Palestinians, many of them children, have been killed.

Through the pain of watching that unfold, Muslims in Boston gather nightly, and say they are still holding out hope for peace and a more tranquil Ramadan in the future.

Prayer in motion

In many faiths, prayer is a stationary exercise, a reverence simply portrayed through stillness.

By contrast, the Tarawih prayers are a full-body experience.

For the better part of two hours, worshippers shift from standing to kneeling to bowing as they pray shoulder to shoulder. Prayer recitation flowing from speakers overhead echoes throughout the mosque.

In many mosques, including the ISBCC mosque in Boston, men and women pray simultaneously but in different areas.

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, the executive director and chief legal officer for the Massachusetts branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said it’s strongly advised that Muslims practice the Tarawih prayer in community with one another rather than at home. She said that a Juz, or about one-thirtieth of the Quran, is recited each night.

“So, if Ramadan lasts for 30 days, doing it in that protocol will allow the worshippers to complete the recitation of the Holy Quran sort of vicariously through the person leading the prayers,” she said. “So, it’s also very cerebral as well as being spiritual and physical.”

Ismail Fenni is an imam at the Yusuf Mosque in Brighton. He says people congregate just about every night of Ramadan. The month itself is a way to sort of recharge one’s focus and connection to God.

“Truly, for us, it’s a wake-up call, in essence, to look at who we are and where we stand in our worldly journey and to be able to reconnect, spiritually, with the divine,” he said.

These last ten nights of Ramadan are especially significant, as many believe the Night of Power, when an angel revealed the first verses of the Quran, likely falls on one of the odd-numbered nights of the lunar month.

"In the Islamic faith, it's considered to be a wondrous night," Fenni said. "A night of great blessings."

This year, those fervent prayers will include hopes and solidarity with struggling Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. According to CAIR-MA, there has been a spike in calls for assistance to the organization following the beginning of the war in Gaza.

All of that has made this Ramadan a more somber affair for Muslims here in Massachusetts as they watch the conflict from afar.

“You know, we usually mark it with a lot of joyful anticipation, which that was there just because of the nature of the Holy Month,” Amatul-Wadud said. “But I think it’s fair to say that our joy is somewhat tempered by what’s happening in Gaza.”

From several corners of the world to Boston

Back at the ISBCC, Imam Abdulqadir Farah points to the diversity within the mosque, where he said about 90 different nationalities are represented — a value that Ramadan emphasizes.

“It’s a month that basically teaches us the ability for us to look beyond the confinements of space or culture or language or any of these barriers that people basically put in place,” he said. “And to look (at) the humanity and the conditions of people. And anything you do to better the conditions of people, it would be something that’s just delightful.”

He said morale has taken a hit with the war in Gaza. But Farah points out one of the teachings of Islam is to be patient.

“So, it’s business as usual as far as worship and nightly worship (are) concerned,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure the community, emotionally, is very invested in what’s happening. We are praying for them … we’re sending out a lot of invocations. And we really hope that this stops, and both sides are safe and sound.”