Muslim Day at Six Flags a time to relax and connect with others

Gurnee park expects about 1,200 Muslims to attend Saturday

On any other day, Sobia Ahmed would opt to forgo many of the snacks on offer at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. To perform the Islamic prayers she recites five times a day, she likely would slip onto a secluded path at the amusement park or look for solace under a shady tree for a few furtive minutes.

But this Saturday Ahmed and her family will eat and pray at their leisure in the park with hundreds of other Muslims from the Chicago area who plan to visit the sprawling entertainment center for a day catered especially to them.

For the fourth time since 2004, Six Flags in Gurnee is sponsoring Muslim Day, bringing in outside caterers to provide halal food and turning an amphitheater into a makeshift mosque to accommodate Muslims who observe dietary laws and strict prayer schedules. Muslims who plan to go say they appreciate the sense of community the event creates.

“If you go on regular days, it’s kind of tough to find a place to pray,” said Ahmed, a stay-at-home mom from Bolingbrook who has attended previous Muslim Days at Six Flags with her husband and five children.

“Usually we can’t eat the food, but now we can.”

Started in New Jersey by an interethnic Muslim organization called the Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim Day at Six Flags has grown from a one-time gig focusing on youth—which took place a few days before the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy—into a popular annual family event at several of the company’s parks, Muslim organizers and park representatives said.

One of the New Jersey organizers died in the World Trade Center, which stalled efforts to organize a Muslim Day in 2002, according to Raza Farrukh, the Islamic group’s New Jersey representative. Today the New Jersey event is so big that the organizers typically buy a day at the park for Muslims only.

In Gurnee, the park will remain open to all, but the day has steadily attracted more and more Muslims. According to park officials, 345 Muslims attended the first year; nearly 1,400 came in 2006. This year, organizers say they hope to attract as many as 4,000, though park officials said they expected about 1,200.

“The kids love it and adults also,” said Zulfiqar Khan, a Pakistani immigrant living in Plainfield who is coordinating this year’s event. “We can socialize, have some ethnic food, just create a sense of community.”

Six Flags also has created special events for Catholics, Baptists and Methodists, park officials said, and Episcopalians have booked the amphitheater for prayer services. Traditional Polish dancers joined in the park’s opening ceremonies during a recent Polish Day, and last week the park supplied American Sign Language interpreters during a “hard-of-hearing-awareness day.”

For the Muslims’ prayer needs, the park chose an amphitheater near the restrooms so worshipers can perform ablutions beforehand. Mats will cover the theater’s concrete floor so worshipers can comfortably kneel. Two outside caterers will provide food that complies with Islamic standards of preparation.

The park also will allow Muslim women to wear loose-fitting pants and shirts—rather than swimsuits—in the pool, and plans to post female park attendants at the most popular rides to tend to Muslim women, a park spokeswoman said. That includes making sure head scarves are tucked into clothing so the fabric doesn’t get caught on the equipment.

Syed Warsi, a physician from Aurora whose wife wears the veil, said many women who don the Islamic covering feel more comfortable going to the park when lots of other covered Muslim women are expected to be there.

On most Saturdays, the park attracts 25,000 to 40,000 patrons, so Muslims will be a small minority, the park spokeswoman said. Still, the sight of a few hundred Muslims visiting the park at once has caught people’s attention in past years, Warsi said, and he has fielded his share of inquiries about where he is from and what he believes.

He deals with it with a sense of humor, he said.

“Lots of people are kind of surprised to see us,” Warsi said. “They never saw so many Muslims at one time. That’s OK. It gives us a chance to answer questions.”

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