Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer


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Monterey County Herald
May 24, 1997
Cover Story

The Observance of Ramadan
The month-long fast of Ramadan is soon to begin.

By Sedona Callahan

Muslims around the world, including some 250,000 in Northern California, will fast, from the first of dawn to sunset, during the lunar month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Starting on Wednesday, January eighth, Muslims will begin to search the sky for the new crescent moon, which is expected to appear on the tenth of January.

The month-long fast is in commemoration of the revelation of the Qur'an (divine scripture and Islam's holy book). "It was in Ramadan, when the holy book, the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed," says Nourredin Al-Ali of Monterey. "It was in Ramadan, when the worst battle in the history of Islam was fought in Badra, close to the city of Medina, the second holiest city of Islam. Ramadan has a very significant place in Islam."

The fast of Ramadan entails abstaining from food and drink, including water, during those hours from sunrise to sunset. The fast also requires foregoing sexual relations during the fasting hours, and other physical habits, such as smoking.

The Ramadan fast, however, is not perceived as a time of deprivation to Muslims. On the contrary, Ramadan is seen as a time of great joy and happiness, as they visit one another after sunset to break the fast together and meet each other for prayers. During this month, Muslims are encouraged to reconcile broken relationships, visit with family and friends and offer hospitality to anyone who wishes to visit.

"During this time," says Al-Ali, "you will see relationships between family members and friends become very active. For example, in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, homes will be open, beginning at sunset, for whoever wants to come in and break the fast. The head of the house will receive people coming and going - drinking tea and eating sweets - going on and on, all during the night and continuing until the early morning. Sometimes there are speeches and readings of poetry. During the day, businesses are open only half the day so that people can sleep and prepare for the next night."

Al-Ali continues, "In Cairo, with a population of 9,000,000 people, you see the happiness that comes from all the social activities, the food, the invitations for breaking fast together. The people love to go to the mosque, a place called Sayed-du-na Alhossein, where there are coffee shops, restaurants, places for lectures. The people come and spend the night, believing that this brings them blessings and good luck and happiness."

The Islamic Society of Monterey, at the Fireside Lodge on Tenth Street,will be open each evening of Ramadan after sunset to receive visitors and guests for prayers and worship. Every night special Ramadan prayers, called taraweeh, will be read, reciting at least one thirtieth of the Qur'an, so that by the end of the month, the entire Qur'an will have been recited.

The ultimate goal of fasting is greater God-consciousness. The Qur'anic word is taqwa, which literally means "being on guard", signifying a state of being constantly aware of God and what is right and wrong. From this awareness, a person gains discipline, self-restraint and the ability to do good and give freely.

Because Ramadan is the month in which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, it is, therefore, the month in which Muslims re-acquaint themselves with the Qur'an by reading the entire text and contemplating its meaning. Al-Ali says, "Ramadan is the month of thinking and reflection."

Although children are not expected to fully participate in the fast during Ramadan until they have reached puberty, they are taught to reflect on their behavior. Maha ElGenaidi, of the Islamic Networks Group, based in Saratoga, says, "During Ramadan, children are asked to identify their bad habits and to make efforts to correct them." It is also customary for children, beginning around seven years of age, to perform limited or symbolic fasting, such as fasting half a day, or on the weekends.

Exempted from the fast are people who are sick or traveling, women who are pregnant, nursing or on their menses, or older people who are too weak. Those who are exempted must make up the fast at a later time, except those who are unable to do so. Muslims who are exempted from fasting are encouraged to do community service by feeding the poor.

All Muslims are encouraged to be charitable during Ramadan. As fasting from food and drink helps people feel compassion for the hungry and less fortunate, food drives for the poor and other charities are annual events for some mosques. "When you meditate on what it means to be a good Muslim, you see that it is your responsibility to care about yourself and your family members. You are responsible as a part of the human body to think about everyone in the society," says Al-Ali. "This is the time to bring everyone together, to think about each other, to share whatever you have with each other."

At the end of Ramadan, Muslims hold one of their major festivals, Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. A special prayer and sermon are held in the morning, followed by a community celebration involving food and games for children. "There is celebration, food, all the family is together," says ElGenaidi. "There's an exchange of gifts, especially for the children who have completed the fast for the first time. It's a joyful three-day celebration."

Mohammed Bari, president of the Monterey Islamic Society, says the Monterey County Muslim community, which numbers about 1000 families, will celebrate Eid al-Fitr, at the Defense Language Institute Officers' Club when the new crescent moon is again sighted.

© 1997 Sedona Callahan