Ramadan’s Monthlong Fast Nears for Muslims : Holiday: Forgoing food from dawn to sunset is hard, especially in non-Islamic cultures. But it is also a time for spiritual purification.
For Ihsan Bagby, the first day of Ramadan--the month in which Muslims believe the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad--is generally the roughest.
“It’s the day your body is adjusting. Usually I’m out of it the first night with a headache,” he said.
For Muslims such as Bagby, Ramadan--which begins Wednesday with the sighting of the new moon--is a time of fasting from daybreak to sunset. It is a solemn period, a month for spiritual purification and self-restraint, for attending mosque prayer services and for giving money to feed the poor.
But Ramadan, the most widely celebrated of Muslim holidays, is also a joyous time of late-night gatherings of family and friends--in mosques, homes and restaurants, where the fast is first broken with the traditional glass of water accompanied by three dates.
“It’s a very fun time for my wife and me and our four children,” said Bagby, a professor of Near East studies at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. “Some Muslims frown upon it because they think it’s imitative of Christmas, but we decorate our house with signs saying ‘Happy Ramadan’ and put up decorative lights inside and even outside.”
Some Muslims exchange greeting cards and gifts at the end of Ramadan, which lasts 29 or 30 days, depending on when the new moon for the next month is sighted.
Earl El-Amin, who works for the Baltimore Urban League, a civil rights and anti-poverty agency, said his gifts to others are usually a Koran or another book relating to Islam. But sometimes the gift is not religious.
“There’s nothing wrong with giving an article of clothing or something else that’s nice,” he said.
Ramadan culminates with Eid ul-Fitr, a three-day festival that begins with a special communal prayer. “The gaiety can go on for the whole eid, " said El-Amin, “although that’s harder to do in this country because people generally have to work.”
Islam teaches that Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is the month in which the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Koran, the Muslim scripture.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the “five pillars” of Islam--along with making a declaration of faith, praying five times daily, giving charity and, if possible, making a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Koran states that God wants the faithful to fast “to glorify him.”
“This is the only thing God asks us to do for him,” said El-Amin. “But even then you’re doing something for yourself because the Koran says that if you fast during Ramadan you are cleansed of your sins.”
Fasting, noted Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, also helps develop humility and compassion for the poor. “To go without food or drink is to experience what those who are less fortunate experience daily,” Syeed said.
Because Muslims place great importance on the physical sighting of the new moon that begins Ramadan, American Muslims have developed an elaborate system for determining the exact moment that occurs.
“There are elaborate astronomical tables that calculate the time of the new moon for the next 50 years, but that does not satisfy the needs of Muslims,” said Khalid Shaukat, an engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “Generally it’s 13 or more hours between the time of the new moon in astronomical terms and when it can be seen.”
Shaukat, an amateur astronomer, and others associated with the Committee for Crescent Observation will spend the night of Jan. 31 scanning the skies across North America for the faintest glimmer of the new moon. Whoever spots the moon will telephone Shaukat, another man in Ithaca, N.Y., or the Islamic Society’s office in Plainfield, Ind.
The caller will then be questioned about the position of the moon to make sure it actually has been sighted.
“Sometimes a streak of cloud or an airplane light that appears elongated can be mistaken for the moon,” said Shaukat.
Once the determination has been made that it is the new moon, the word will be put out via a network of telephone answering machines telling Muslims that the Ramadan fast begins the next morning. While that is expected to be Feb. 1 this year, it could be delayed until Feb. 2 if the moon is not spotted the night of Jan. 31.
Muslims say that fasting during Ramadan--from which young children, the sick, the elderly, pregnant or nursing women, and travelers on long journeys are exempt--is easier in Islamic nations, where the local culture is geared to support the effort.
But as the number of American Muslims grows--now an estimated at 3 million to 5 million--Muslims say non-Muslims have become more understanding of Ramadan.
“Someone will ask me to go to lunch without thinking and then apologize for asking once they realize what they’ve done,” said Aisha Sharif, a news reporter in York, Pa. “I find people not only respectful, but interested in why I’m fasting.”
But Sharif noted that even the understanding of others does not make fasting physically easier.
“Not eating while others around you are eating isn’t the hard part,” she said. “That you can master. Keeping up your energy and concentration on work is more difficult.”
The American prison system has also begun to adjust to Ramadan. About 1.1 million individuals are incarcerated in American prisons, and about 15 percent--the overwhelming majority African Americans--are Muslims, according to Warithhuddin Umar, president of the National Assn. of Muslim Chaplains in Albany, N.Y.
Umar said prisoners generally receive bagged meals that they can consume before daybreak and that halal meats from animals slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law are more available in prisons during Ramadan than during the rest of the year.
“Ramadan is very impacting in prison,” Umar said. “It’s a time of heightened awareness and conversion to Islam in prison.”