Muslims ready for holy month

Holiday’s daily fasts strengthen spirituality, religious leaders say
Albany Times Union, Nov. 4, 2002

On the edge of the table where Sheikh Mohammed Al-Hanooti sits at the Islamic Center of the Capital District, you’ll find a stack of dates, vacuum-sealed in packages heavy enough to bruise a toe.

The small, chewy fruits, a gift from Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud to the spiritual leader of the Capital Region’s largest mosque, are the food often used to break the sunrise-to-sunset fasts required of the world’s Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins Wednesday.

The wrinkled fruits are heavy with spiritual significance, as it is believed that is how the prophet Muhammad broke his own fasts.

“It’s a tradition, yes,” said Al-Hanooti, who leaves his post in Colonie the holiday to take a national advisory position as a mufti, or jurist, in Washington, D.C. “Breaking the fast is a celebration of joy, because they were successful and they pleased God.”

Giving up food, an element that local Muslims say bonds a culture that is ethnically diverse, allows for a concentration on self-control, compassion and spirituality, said Djafer Sebkhaoui, the imam, or holy man, at the Troy mosque and the Muslim chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“The purpose of Ramadan is spiritual, so people are not supposed to indulge in food the way they are used to,” Sebkhaoui said. “Some people tend to make up for the whole day after the fast is over, but that’s not appropriate.”

Because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, with 29- or 30-day months, Ramadan falls earlier every year. This year’s winter fast, with its relatively brief stretches of daylight, isn’t as trying as a midsummer Ramadan.

For many raised in Muslim households, the idea of food, feasting and sharing is one that’s intrinsically linked with the faith whose followers span the globe.

“A lot of times, when we talk about Ramadan and the different ethnic foods that are eaten during feasts, it’s really cool because that allows us to talk about other cultures,” said 18-year-old Shazia Ahmad, a Muslim student at the University at Albany whose parents emigrated from India. “But Ramadan is not about eating, it’s about not eating, about bonding with people in the absence of food.”

Sebkhaoui’s daughter, Soumaya, recalled how, as a child, she would fast for a half-day, or as long as she could. Afterward, her accomplishments were rewarded by special cookies from her mother. Though Muslim children aren’t required to observe Ramadan fasting until they’ve reached puberty, many choose to participate earlier to the extent that they can, Soumaya said.

“You tell yourself that you can do it, and you set goals for yourself,” said Soumaya, now 21. Waiting for Ramadan is “like waiting for a really good friend to come, and then when they leave you’re sad.”

Ramadan offers Muslims a chance to strengthen their self-control, an essential component of the faith, said Haider Khwaja, who is on the board of trustees of Al-Fatemah Islamic Center in Colonie.

This is especially important today when the world’s understanding of Islam is repeatedly undermined by fanatics who claim the religion as their guide, Khwaja said.

“We teach compassion for all people, that if our youths encounter (prejudice) they should not react,” said the Pakistan-born environmental scientist, who teaches at the University at Albany. “Ramadan is a training period for all Muslims, emphasizing discipline and subservience to the laws of our holy book.”

There is, however, some flexibility to the strict dietary requirements, Khwaja said. Pregnant women, those nursing or who are ill, may fast for an equal amount of time at a different point in the year. In keeping with modern times, there also are allowances for travelers, who may jet through several times zones, upsetting Ramadan schedules.

“Principles cannot be changed, but given the current existing conditions, you can accommodate,” Khwaja said.

Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, a feast and celebration preceded by the giving of money and charity to the needy, a practice that is emphasized throughout Ramadan.

“Not eating softens your heart, especially to the poor,” Soumaya Sebkhaoui said. “It’s one thing to know what they go through, it’s another to feel what they go through.”

And when it comes to break the fast for the final time, Muslims come together with renewed understand of what it means to celebrate equality, Al-Hanooti said.

“It is the nature of Islam is to leave no boundaries of race or ethnicity or anything of class,” Al-Hanooti said. “Islam focuses on the fact that people are equal, so it is in the banquets of Ramadan, when people are sitting together to eat, that stresses the fact that there is some sort of brotherhood and sisterhood between people.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 4, 2002.
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