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Enough faith to fast?

By Faiza Saleh AmbahCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2004


I returned from a trip to the States to find my home city transformed.

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Multicolored strings of lights blink from shopping malls next to large "Ramadan Is Generous" signs. Restaurant stalls are draped with the traditional red, green, white, and black Bedouin textiles.

It feels something like Christmas in America.

When I arrive at my parents' house there are workers in the garden wrapping tiny colored lights around the palm trees, and inside they're painting the walls and arranging newly upholstered furniture.

"What's going on?" I ask my mother.

"I'm welcoming Ramadan," she says. "This is for the happiness that Ramadan brings."

"All this for a month marked by hunger?" I ask.

"Not hunger," she says, "Spirituality. God is never as close to us as he is during Ramadan."

The month-long Muslim holiday - marked by all-day fasting - starts Friday, with the sighting of the new moon. It's the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, but actually predates Islam.

Prior to the prophet Muhammad, Ramadan was an Arabian tradition. The pious devoted a period of each year to a retreat of asceticism and prayer. According to his biographers, the father of Islam used to retreat every year during the month of Ramadan to an empty cave two miles north of Mecca. He brought minimal provisions and devoted himself to meditation, forgetting himself, food, and even the world around him.

It was during that month more than 1,400 years ago that the angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad the first verses of the Muslim holy book the Koran. Fasting during Ramadan, the third pillar of Islam, is seen as a form of self-denial and restraint that strengthens the relationship with God. It also helps people appreciate God's bounty and identify with the poor and hungry. During the fast, Muslims must abstain not only from food, drink, and sex, but also from getting angry, swearing, gossiping, and bad thoughts. The Sufis call it fasting from everything but the presence of God.

Fasting for redemption

I'm always surprised by the enthusiasm and delight with which my family and others immerse themselves in this event. But what's the point of being a perfect Muslim for just one month out of the year?

"That's one of the great things about Islam," says my sister Taghreed, herself an occasional "sinner" just back from two months in London. "It gives you several chances to redeem yourself. And Ramadan is one of them."

Complete the fast and you emerge with not only a cleansed soul but also a clean slate. "Hopefully you keep it that way," says Taghreed.

My cellphone beeps almost hourly as more than a dozen messages arrive from family and friends. One message includes a crescent and star, the symbols of Islam: "Ramadan is near, may you have a happy year." From a friend in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I receive a picture of a small devil with a pitchfork: "Don't get too comfortable. It's only one month. I'll be back."

Another message from a Tuesday-evening youth club offers me a chance to feed a widow or orphan for the whole month of Ramadan for 300 riyals ($80). I think about it, but decide to pass. I'd rather provide charity to make people's lives better, not just to help them eat during Ramadan.

Another message is a nude drawing of a very fat woman. "Watch out for the fried dough balls and sambousak if you don't want to look like this," it warns against some of the traditional Ramadan dishes.

Iftar, or the breaking fast, when it finally arrives each day after the call to evening prayers, is lavish. Star-studded Egyptian soap operas are scheduled one after the other for prime-time Ramadan viewing, right after iftar, when people are usually too full to move. And with an eye toward the following day's deprivation, most people stay up, snacking until dawn.