For Muslims, fasting during Ramadan offers an opportunity for self-reflection and spiritual rejuvenation

As the sun set on a cool June evening, hundreds of Muslims at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove bit into dates and sipped pink-colored rose milk, their first taste of food in 16 hours.

Seated at tables on a grassy lawn outside the mosque, the community had gathered for iftar, or breaking of the fast, on the second day of Ramadan. After eating a small plate of dates, grapes, watermelon and a potato-filled samosa as the call to prayer played gently over a loud speaker, they filed inside for the evening prayer, then returned for a meal of pasta, meatballs, garlic bread and salad.

Although food and appetites were abundant, for many of the Muslims in attendance that evening, the focus wasn't on eating but rather spirituality.

"Any time my stomach growls or I want to eat, it's a reminder that it's not any other day when I'm hungry, but that I'm fasting with a purpose," said Myra Mughal, a 22-year-old student at Golden West College in Huntington Beach who grew up attending the Islamic Society.

"It's a tug on the sleeve to not forget my patience, that this is a time to strengthen my character and to try my best to embody the essence of Islam, which to me is to be merciful and compassionate with everyone."

Ramadan is the name of the ninth lunar month in the Muslim calendar, during which it is said that the Prophet Muhammad first received the Koran, the Islamic holy book.

Fasting during this time — this year it's expected to be June 5 to July 5 — is one of the pillars, or fundamentals, of the religion, so all healthy adults who are not traveling, menstruating, pregnant, breastfeeding or on medication are required to abstain from all food, drink and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset.

This year in Orange County, the fast lasts about 15½ hours, from about 4:15 a.m. until 8 p.m., although the length of the fast shifts as the days grow longer and longer.

In addition, Ramadan is a time to immerse oneself in the Koran, and many Muslims set out to read the entire sacred text — which is about 600 pages long — during this month.

While non-Muslims typically look at Ramadan as a hardship, most Muslims view the month as a time of spiritual rejuvenation.

"It's a form of self-discipline," said Ozgur Koca, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Claremont School of Theology, outside Los Angeles. "It paves the way for self-transformation, spiritual cleansing, a realization of higher ethical standard and kindness to others."

Koca also explained that fasting is not exclusive to Islam. For instance, Jews fast during Yom Kippur and some Christian denominations fast during Lent. "The idea of abstaining from certain things for a certain period of time seems to be an important thing across religions," he said.

For Atef Mahgoub, religious director of the Islamic Center of Irvine, Ramadan gives Muslims the opportunity to take stock of their lives.

"It's a time to evaluate yourself, to call yourself into account," he said, "to say, 'Where have you been in the last year and where are you going?' If you have a flaw in your personality, this is the time to work on it."

One piece of advice Mahgoub gave his congregation before Ramadan began was to avoid Facebook and excess television. "I encouraged people to not waste their time," he said.

For Irvine resident Mirkena Ozer, Ramadan is like a spiritual "boot camp."

The stay-at-home mother of six wakes up at 3a.m. every day this month to prepare the pre-dawn meal for her family — usually eggs or other high-protein breakfast food. This is followed by the dawn prayer, and while her children usually go back to sleep, Ozer and her husband stay awake to read the Koran.

After her husband and children leave for work and school, she does her errands and starts cooking dinner. After all, the morning is when she has the most energy. Later in the day, she continues reading the Koran or listening to religious lectures.

To break the fast, Ozer's family typically drinks water and eats dates and soup. This light meal is followed by the evening prayers and a full dinner. Later at night the family performs a set of longer prayers that only occur during Ramadan called taraweeh.

"It makes you reflect on your existence," Ozer said. "You realize as a human being how dependent on food you are. You see that your body is very fragile, so it's a humbling experience."

At the same time, she said, "I don't feel like it's excruciatingly difficult. This is doable."

Ozer also tries to make the month fun for her family. Their house is decorated with lanterns and festive wall hangings. She lets her children pick their favorite foods for iftar, and after completing taraweeh prayers, they all enjoy ice cream together.

And for her 4-year-old daughter, Ozer created a "Ramadan calendar" made up of small boxes with presents inside — one for each day of the month. "She can't read the Koran or fast yet, but we want her to participate in the excitement," the mother said.

Ramadan is also a month of hospitality and socializing. Ozer hosts neighbors, friends and colleagues for iftar three times a week, and on the weekends her family goes to community iftars at Pacifica Institute, a Turkish American cultural and religious center in Irvine.

The Islamic Center of Irvine draws 400 people each night to break their fast and enjoy a variety of ethnic cuisine to reflect the diversity of the congregation, which is made up of first- and second-generation immigrants from countries including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, India, Pakistan and Bosnia, as well as white and African American converts.

Afterward, a few thousand people pour into the mosque for taraweeh prayers, which last from 10 p.m. until midnight. The crowds are so large, explained board Chairman Ahmed Elmalky, that congregants spill into the parking lot, which has been specially equipped with carpets, tents and a speaker system to project the imam's voice from inside the mosque.

Ramadan is also a time of charity — it is said that one benefit of fasting is the cultivation of empathy with the poor and hungry — so many social and religious events during this month are centered on fundraising for various causes.

While Ramadan in the United States may be less festive than in Muslim-majority countries, where the streets and mosques are elaborately decorated, extended families get together regularly and people stay out late at night, Claremont's Koca said one benefit of celebrating as a minority is the opportunity for interfaith gatherings.

"I believe it's possible to turn Ramadan here in the United States into an opportunity for universal brotherhood," he said.

Interfaith gatherings during Ramadan have steadily increased in Orange County in recent years, said Tom Thorkelson, vice president of the Orange County Interfaith Network, so that this month there are about 30 iftars with an interreligious component, including a Jewish-Muslim iftar at Temple Beth David in Westminster and a Mormon-Muslim iftar at the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda.

"Our goal is to lessen the angst and tension and increase the understanding," Thorkelson said. "We have much more in common than we do in the differences we present."

Despite the difficulties of fasting throughout the month, Ozer knows she'll miss Ramadan once it ends.

"It's a mixed feeling," she said. "You feel happy, that feeling of having accomplished something. But at the same time, you feel sad because your family and loved ones have dispersed, you miss the camaraderie and that feeling of being closer to everything spiritual.

"That's why Muslims always pray to God that they reach another Ramadan."

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Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, caitlin.kandil@latimes.com.

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