A Personal View of Ramadan
By Rabia Jami
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2002 The sun is setting and in my home everyone is gathering at the table. Completing last minute preparations we share in a quiet mixture of joking, enjoying each other's company and prayer. Then, my father speaks up.
"It is time," he says.
At this, my brother-in-law Fahhim, an American convert to Islam with roots in Michigan and Scotland, moves into the living room and faces Makkah (Mecca).
"Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar," he recites. "God is Great. God is Great."
Hearing the first words of Islam's call to prayer, everyone sends one more word of thanks heavenward and begins to eat, following the Muslim tradition of ending the day's Ramadan fast with three dates.
My family is from Afghanistan. We came to the United States as refugees after living under the Soviet occupation for a year or so. At that time, we found that mosques were few and far between. In the Washington D.C. area, there was only one mosque that we were aware of. Meat processed according to Islamic law was difficult to find.
Today, you can find mosques and Islamic congregations throughout the area. There are about 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide. Seven million Muslims live in the United States and worship in more than 2,000 mosques and Islamic centers. On Nov. 6 Muslims begin Ramadan, a month-long religious observance marked by abstinence, charity and fasting.
In the past, shopping at a local mall when prayer time came meant praying in a corner of the parking garage. Today, you can cross the street and go into the Dar-al-Huda Islamic Center, perform your prayer, and be back in Macy's in fifteen minutes.
My family used to drive two hours to a farm whose owner was Muslim just to get fresh meat. Now, butcher shops adhering to Islamic law can be found in most local communities.
In these places, you meet people from every part of the world. Muslims from Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation, mix happily with Nigerians. While praying I can stand next to ladies from the former Soviet Union, China, America, the Gulf States, even Australia. If you wish to gain an excellent perspective of America's wonderful diversity, a mosque is not a bad place to start.
Preparing for Ramadan this year, my first working in the Pentagon, I, like many others, think about September 11, 2001. Since my headscarf hijab proclaims my faith in a place with many questions and few practicing Muslims to provide answers, people frequently ask me about the terrorist attack.
My feelings on this are best expressed in a 1998 letter written by a Muslim teenager and published in the Minaret magazine: "This is a letter to Osama bin Laden from a 10th grader in California. 'Please do not hurt Islam and Muslims by attacking our fellow citizens. If you are keen to murder Americans, kill us before you kill non-Muslim Americans. We are Americans as much as others.'"
Preparing for Ramadan this year, I realized I want others to understand that the terrorists attacked not only the United States, but also all righteously practicing Muslims. Our religion is based not on terror and destruction, but on peace and concern for our fellow man.
Ramadan is a one-month period when we set aside many of this life's luxuries to empathize with those less fortunate. Observing Ramadan is one of Islam's five pillars. The others are: asserting your personal conviction that Allah Arabic for The One is the only thing worthy of worship; praying five times daily; making pilgrimage to Makkah once during your lifetime if you can afford to; and giving a two-and-one-half percent of your income, after paying essential bills, to the needy.
In the Qur'an (Koran), the Muslim holy book, we are told that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said of Ramadan: "The blessed month has come to you. Allah has made fasting during it obligatory to you. During it, the gates to Paradise are opened and the gates to hellfire are locked and the devils are chained. There is a night during this month that is better than a thousand months. Whoever is deprived of its good is really deprived of something great."
Islamic fasting has two key elements. The obvious first element is abstaining from food, drink and sexual relations. Smoking is also to be avoided. Indulging in anger is not acceptable when fasting. Since it is a time of reflection, Muslims also tend to keep away from excessive joking.
The second element is conducting the fast with the proper intention. This act of worship is undertaken for God's pleasure, not to lose weight or to impress your neighbors with your piety.
During Ramadan many Muslims will re-read the entire Qur'an. Charity and other acts of community increase. Total strangers will invite you into their homes to share meals. Each night, in every mosque, special prayers are held where part of the Qur'an is recited aloud so that the entire text is completed by Ramadan's end.
On the surface, it appears difficult. Sometimes, it is. Most days, however, are a pleasure. Muslims see this as an exciting time. The entire community helps you through the day, and then shares in expressing gratitude to God for giving us any number of blessings at night. The primary lessons of Ramadan self-restraint, patience, and empathy for the less fortunate are always beneficial.
Back at the dinner table, my mother suddenly bursts into laughter. It is time to mock Fahhim. It is a favorite Ramadan story in my home, born of one of those amusing misunderstandings that occur when people born on opposite sides of the planet get married.
Eating our pre-dawn meal a few years ago, my mother gave Fahhim a mango. Having never seen one in his life, and not being very inquisitive before the sun comes up, he bit right in. Methodically, he ate the entire skin- never looking up to see everyone else at the table stopping to gape at him. Finally, he dropped the fleshy inside- the part you are supposed to eat- back to his plate.
"Disgusting," he pronounced.
The table dissolved into laughter, then hysterics as he looked around in confusion.
After catching her breath, my mother was able to explain.
"You don't eat the skin!" she said.
In the months and years ahead, Fahhim was to learn much more about our Afghan and Islamic ways as we did about his Michigan upbringing and Scottish-American heritage. I hope people everywhere can do the same.
Editor's note: Rabia Jami is a Web developer for DefendAmerica.mil. Fahhim Abdulhaddi contributed to this story.