Muslims Observe Ramadan

March 06, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

On the Northwest Baltimore office door of Mubasher Ahmad, a Muslim missionary with gentle manners, are words in English and Arabic. They say, "Love for all, hatred for none."

Mounted on a wall in the Baltimore County office of Dr. Bashar Pharaon, an amiable surgeon who is president of the Islamic Society of Maryland, is handsomely embroidered Arabic calligraphy. Its translation: "I believe in God."

The two men, with an estimated 15,000 other Muslims in the Baltimore metropolitan area, are observing the strict, monthlong fast of Ramadan, share a fervent hope for their sometimes controversial and beleaguered faith.

They wish that their Christian and Jewish neighbors would see Muslims not as narrow stereotypes based on Middle Eastern fundamentalists or terrorists, but as exemplars of the eternal, civilized religious messages they try to live by.

"Ramadan is a blessed month," said Mr. Ahmad, who was born in Pakistan. "It is a time of reflection, of prayer, of reading the Holy Koran. It is a spiritual experience, not a political one, though it is true that political issues are also in our thoughts at this time.

"We pray for the homeless Palestinians. We pray for suffering people everywhere. Our observance of Ramadan cannot help but be affected by our grief, our sorrow, our concern over the Bosnian situation."

During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims abstain during daylight hours from all food, liquids, smoking and sexual intercourse.

Ramadan occurs in different seasons in different years. For example, Mr. Ahmad remembers going without food and water on long summer days in Pakistan when the temperature was 110 degrees. "Winter is better," he said with a smile.

Depending on sightings of the moon in different parts of the world, the precise beginning and end of the fast can vary. This year in Maryland, Mr. Ahmad said, it began on Feb. 22 and will conclude on March 23. The feast of Eid-ul-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fast, will be on March 24.

Mr. Ahmad said the growing horror over the atrocities committed against Muslims in Bosnia -- the "ethnic cleansing" and the methodical raping of thousands of Muslim women and girls -- has had at least one positive result for this year's observance of Ramadan. "The painful Bosnian experience is bringing Muslims together, and it is bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together, too," he said.

"To take a positive view of this tragic situation," Mr. Ahmad said, "Jewish leaders are saying and doing the right things about Bosnia."

Khalil Abdul-Rahman, an African-American adherent of Islam who lives in Columbia, noted that Ramadan overlaps the Christian penitential season of Lent this year, and he drew comparisons between the two observances.

"Muslims reflect on the mercy that humanity has received from our Creator," Mr. Abdul-Rahman said. "Thinking of Bosnia, we simultaneously recognize those mercies we have received and reflect on our responsibilities toward other human beings. Ramadan, like Lent, is a time for revitalization, a time to look at problems and try to regroup, a time to be more effective."

In their penitential month, Muslims "not only fast, we try to abstain from wrong thoughts and actions, from wrong behavior," Mr. Abdul-Rahman said.

He estimated that between 60 percent and 70 percent of practicing Muslims in Baltimore are black converts to the faith.

Dr. Pharaon, who was born and educated in Syria, agreed that it is hard to separate the ageless spiritual inspiration and practices of Ramadan from the immediacy of world events.

"Ramadan is basically a month of extra peace, but it is also a time when our thoughts are of people who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are sick," the physician said. "The decision by President Clinton to do something about Bosnia comes as a bit of relief to us, but many Muslims in this country have felt neglected for a long time. We think help for the Bosnians is long overdue."

He added, "Awareness of truth is a positive thing. Many Americans have seen Muslims as stereotypes. Many Americans have had a negative view of Muslims as a community -- but we are human like everyone else.

"What is wonderful about the United States is the openness to different ethnic groups. Now, people here are seeing the similarity of the rapes and the camps in Bosnia to the Jewish camps [in World War II]. Both break our hearts."

Mohamad Z. Awad, a medical researcher who lives in Phoenix, was one of the founders of the Islamic Society of Baltimore in the 1960s and the Islamic Society of Maryland in the 1980s.

"Muslims are united if they read the Koran," he said. "We don't need Bosnia to unite us. Sometimes leaders try to divide us but Muslims know their objectives. We are not apathetic, and we are optimistic. We believe in Allah, and we trust him in our difficulties."

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