Steadfast in FaithJust when most Americans will be focusing on food for the traditional observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, Hawaii's small Muslim community will join Islamic believers around the world in the monthlong Ramadan fast.
Isle Muslims celebrate the holy
month with fasting and faith
By Mary Adamski
The rigorous religious practice is the subject of intense global interest this year, discussed in terms of politics and military strategy as the war against terrorists is waged in Muslim countries.
For Ungela Syed-Egan, 11, of Honolulu, it will be four weeks of school days when she avoids her friends at lunchtime at Noelani Elementary School so as not to be tempted to take even a single bite or sip.
Her stepfather, Michael Egan, anticipates groping for his coffee mug in vain dozens of times a day in the engineering firm office where he works.
Her mother, Nahid Syed-Egan, faces cooking for and feeding their young son, Mujahid, 3, without having a taste of his lunch.
Egan said Ramadan is "a very personal thing. It's between the individual and God."
Believers abstain from all food and drink, including water, from sunrise to sunset during the month, which will begin Friday and continue until the crescent of the new moon is visible again 29 days later. Fasting, or Sawm, is one of the key devotions, the Five Pillars of the religion founded by seventh-century Arab prophet Mohammed on the basis of divine revelations, which he recorded in the Quran.
It gets easier as the month goes by, said Air Force Sgt. Umar Abdul-Wahhab, a technical sergeant at Camp Smith. He played basketball on an intramural team at work last Ramadan without benefit of chugging from a water jug. "Keeping busy is the important thing," he said.
"I find myself pacing around, stopping to visit everyone in the office."
Egan agreed: "On weekends we try to find something to do. The worst thing is to sit around the house."
Abdul-Wahhab and his wife, Tracey, will mark their one-year wedding anniversary Nov. 18, but they're going to postpone the celebration until December.
Her daughter, Unique, 9, won't be required to join the adults until she reaches puberty, but she's of an age when children are encouraged to forgo a snack or drink to get the feel of fasting.
The two families discussed Ramadan after an evening prayer at the Manoa mosque this week.
They expect to be seeing more of each other during the special month. If there is any time when Muslims attempt to gather for group prayers, which are held five times a day, it is in Ramadan. It's a common practice to break the fast together after the sunset service, and, in typical Hawaii style, the shared evening meal often grows into a substantial potluck dinner.
It will be Ungela's first full fast, an experience that is a recent memory for three of the adults. Pakistani-born Nahid Syed-Egan is a lifelong Muslim, but her husband and the Abdul-Wahhabs are converts.
The youngster had a few trial runs last year -- which she described as "skipping lunch." But she was active in soccer, so her parents didn't push it. "Luckily, it doesn't affect soccer this year," said Egan. Ramadan, based on a lunar calendar, is movable, occurring earlier this year than last.
She was feted at a party last year after her first day of fasting, with family and friends invited for dinner. They brought presents, clothes and money.
"It's a Pakistani custom," said her mother, who regaled the other adults with descriptions of the deep-fried delicacies that were the customary fast-breaking evening snacks in her homeland.
"It's the same idea as being debutante, celebrating you becoming an adult," said Tracey Abdul-Wahhab. She grew up in Texas with a Christian mother and Muslim father who, she said, imposed his beliefs, such as restricting dating. "And I know he was silently making prayers that we would become Muslim." She began seriously studying as a young adult, and made her "shahadah" -- declaration of faith -- in 1999 in Houston.
Abdul-Wahhab, originally from Georgia, was stationed in Saudi Arabia -- "surrounded by the faith being practiced" -- when he began to study Islam and decided to convert. His mother, a Southern Baptist, cried when he first told her, he said.
"Now she's OK with it. She sees I'm not drinking. ... I'm a better person."
Michael Egan, who made his declaration of faith in 1993, tends to describe his faith in comparison to his Catholic childhood. "As an adult, if you break the fast intentionally, it is a great sin, there is no way of making up for it," he said, only to be gently reminded by his wife that there is a penance and forgiveness for transgressions.
Egan, who came to Hawaii from Oklahoma, had "studied Islam in world religion, from the Catholic point of view, as heretical."
Inspired to study Islam at the University of Hawaii, "I knew I had to read the Quran." He said he was enthralled by the poetic, allegorical language of the scriptures.
"This is a religion about community. The rules respecting the individual is to make a better-running community," said Egan.
Part of the trick of making it through the long day's fast is "to eat something for breakfast that sticks with you," he said. His pre-dawn meal is likely to be oatmeal, or dinner leftovers, "and lots of water."
"Ramadan isn't just about cleansing the body physically, it's a spiritual cleansing," said Abdul-Wahhab.
"It is the way we show our complete submission to Allah's will.
"If you do this as an act of faith, Allah gives you a reward. They say that the greatest rewards are when you complete the fast ... and when you meet Allah in paradise."
U.S. forces face a political quandary in their anti-terrorism campaign: whether to halt or continue airstrikes in Afghanistan during the holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran, as a guide to mankind, also Clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment. So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.
-- Al-Baqarah: 185
The Bush administration holds the view that "terrorists will not rest during Ramadan, and neither will we."
Meanwhile, key Muslim allies in the coalition against terrorism, including President Musharraf of Pakistan, warn that bombing during Ramadan would erode support for the war in the countries of Muslim allies.
Understanding why this is an important and sensitive issue begins with understanding something about Ramadan itself.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, a holy month when Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less concern on the trials of everyday life. This year, Ramadan begins next Saturday.
During Ramadan, healthy Muslims fast during the day, then break the fast after sunset. The daytime fasting, which includes abstention from eating, drinking and sexual relations, lasts throughout the month, the purpose of which is to emphasize the spiritual half of an individual by de-emphasizing his physical half. By restraining one's physical needs, the Muslim becomes more attuned to his spiritual side, thus through prayer and reflection, the fast allows a way to be relived of past sins.
Avoiding immoral behavior, although important year round, is particularly important during the fast of Ramadan. Muslims must refrain from slander, lying, denouncing someone behind his back, making false oaths or exhibiting expressions of greed or covetousness. Showing compassion for others is also important, and if one cannot fast during this month due to ill health or other circumstances, the nonfasting Muslim is encouraged to give alms to the poor or feed other Muslims during the night hours.
Ramadan is also a time to strengthen community and familial bonds by often visiting with friends and family. Most important, Ramadan is a time of worship and contemplation, and much time during the fasting hours is spent by the Muslim in prayer and study of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
OriginsRamadan's origins are explained in a story similar in significance to Muslims as the story of the delivery of the Ten Commandments to Moses is to Jews and Christians. Muslims believe that Ramadan was the month when the first revelation of the Quran was sent from heaven to the prophet Mohammed. Mohammed is said to have been in Mecca when the angel Gabriel appeared to him, commanding Mohammed to read and memorize verses of the divinely delivered Quran. For 10 days these revelations continued, the first occurring on what Islamic scholars believe was the 27th day of Ramadan. This night is known as Laylat-al-Qadr, the Night of Power. Although the Quran was revealed to Mohammed over a period of 23 years, it is the first of these revelations that is celebrated during Ramadan.
CustomsSince the Muslim calendar is lunar, the day begins with night. The daytime fasts are broken with a small meal called the iftar. Following the iftar, it is customary for Muslims to visit friends and family. Each day of Ramadan, Muslims awake early to take their sahoor, a pre-dawn meal before starting their fast.
While fasting, Muslims will commonly go to mosque to pray and study the Quran. On any day of the year, prayer will normally consist of five daily prayers, but during Ramadan a sixth prayer, called the Taraweeh, is recited at night. This prayer is commonly two to three times as long as the daily prayers, and some Muslims may spend an entire night in prayer.
On the evening of the 27th day of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the Night of Power, the night that begins the final 10 days of Ramadan. Following Ramadan, Muslims celebrate a three-day holiday called Id-al-Fitr -- the Feast of Fast Breaking, which begins on the first night of Shawwaal, the 10th month of the Muslim calendar. The holiday will begin with a large congregation of Muslim men, women and children where Muslims will gather and exchange gifts. After the congregation, Muslims visit each other at their homes and have dinners for family and friends.
The fastThere are several reasons Muslims fast during Ramadan. The Quran says fasting is the means to acquire self-control and God-consciousness, improve health by reducing or eliminating impurities from the body, and become aware of the plight of the poor, hungry and sick. Ramadan is a month of spiritual consciousness and high sense of social responsibility.
The duty to keep the fast of Ramadan is called Siyam, one of the Five Pillars of Faith. The five pillars are religious duties that each Muslim must perform as part of their faith. The other four pillars are:
>> Shahada (affirmation): The duty to recite the creed "There is nothing worthy of worship save Allah, and Mohammed is the Messenger of God."
>> Salat (prayer): The duty to worship God in prayer five times daily.
>> Zakat (almsgiving): The duty to aid the needy.
>> Hajj (pilgrimage): The duty to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.
Who observes the fastAbout 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide celebrate Ramadan each year. All healthy adult Muslims must fast. Exceptions are allowed for those who are ill, traveling or might otherwise be put at risk as a result of the fast.
Women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating may also not fast, although they are required to make up the fast some other time, as must all who abstain from fasting during Ramadan who will be physically able to at a later date. Pre-adolescent children are also not required to fast.
The fast can be nullified by many things, including intentional eating and drinking, having sex, intentionally vomiting and exhibiting immoral behavior such as lying and slandering others. These indiscretions may be atoned for by completing the fast on another day.
The fightingMuslim leaders have cautioned that the United States should show restraint in its anti-terrorism campaign during the holy month of Ramadan. They say that military strikes may stoke the fires of resentment among Muslims in all countries, which may break down support for the campaign among key Muslim allies such as Pakistan and Iran.
Some U.S. officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, dismiss these concerns. "History is replete with instances where Muslim nations have fought against themselves or with other countries during various important holy days," Rumsfeld said.
According to the Quran, fighting is "a great transgression."
Still, it does not forbid fighting when required to defend Islam: "Fighting therein is a transgression, but a greater transgression with Allah is to prevent mankind following the Way of Allah, to disbelieve in Him, to prevent access to Masjid-al-Haram (a holy site at Mecca) and to drive out its inhabitants."
Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers have on more than one occasion characterized their actions as a defense of Islam.
In his fatwa (religious ruling) issued Feb. 23, 1998, bin Laden states the killing of Americans and their allies "is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order ... for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."
Sources: The Quran and Sunnah Society, IslamiCity.com, Holidays.com, CBS News, al-islam.com
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