O.C. Muslims welcome Ramadan in year of uprisings

Ramadan began Monday with special significance for Orange County Muslims, who celebrated the democratic tide washing over Egypt and Tunisia but also expressed concern for those who remain in peril in Syria, Libya and other Middle Eastern dictatorships.

"It's definitely a Ramadan with a different taste," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area, in Anaheim. "It comes as the first Ramadan under freedom to tens of millions of Muslims around the world, but who are still dealing with the challenges of instability and the unknown.

"But for others, it comes to them under dictators' brutality, such as in Syria and Libya, and other places, and it's not an easy to observe the month of Ramadan."

Rabab Issa, a member of the Costa Mesa-based Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, would not take a political position, but said this year she will also be praying for her people in Syria.

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. During Ramadan, which falls every year on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims abstain from things like food and water from sunrise to sunset. The faithful believe that the monthlong holiday allows them to renew their faith, recharge their spirits and reconnect with their creator.

"The month of Ramadan is the month of generosity, as known in Islam," Ayloush said. "It's the month of compassion and mercy toward others. The two things we seek in Ramadan for ourselves are God's mercy and forgiveness, and that cannot be achieved until we apply that forgiveness and mercy toward others.

"You don't forgive those who do you good. You forgive those who do you wrong. That takes an extra level of compassion toward others."

For Huntington Beach resident Maria Khani, it's a time of extra giving to those in need and a time of family bonding.

"It's a family time," she said. "We don't go out and we eat at home. This is my family tradition."

Although Khani and her family's daily routine keep them busy all year long, they adjust their schedules to be able to observe Ramadan together.

Khani's husband, Hassan Al Khouli, whose work as a physician sometimes keeps him away from dinner with his family, makes sure he's home by Iftar, or the breaking of the fast.

This month, Khani and her daughter, Dania Al Khouli, are working together on two charity projects: one to benefit the youth and another to feed the hungry.

Children, the elderly and the ill are excused from fasting during the holiday.

"It's a daily reminder for 30 days about how it feels to be hungry and thirsty, except that we're thankful that this little feeling of discomfort ends by sunset," Ayloush said. "But for others, it continues day after day until help arrives and we need to be that help."

There are three components to observing the month of Ramadan: working to renew one's spirituality and challenging shortcomings; extra prayers; and strengthening one's relationship with others.

"This is the time when we forgive, when we give more of charity to help the needy, and this is the time when we invite neighbors, friends and co-workers to join us for Iftar in a Thanksgiving-like atmosphere," Ayloush said.

By the end of Ramadan, Muslims and their communities come together as one, said Imam Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini of the Islamic Education Center of Orange County .

"It increases Muslims' sense of brotherhood and sisterhood among their community members," he said. "So, when we break the fast for 30 days together, at the end of it, we really feel like we are one family, praying together and eating together and worshiping together."

Fasting put Muslims in others' shoes and moves them to make a difference.

Ayloush said this is also Muslims' chance to dispel misconceptions about Islam.

"Just be yourself and extend a hand of friendship and sharing to fellow Americans around you, whether it's by inviting a neighbor to break a fast or it could be by helping a neighbor who is struggling financially or someone you know who lost their job," he said. "Don't do anything special; just practice the month of Ramadan with the rest of America."

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