The days of Ramadan Holy month: Fasting of Ramadan encourages discipline, compassion, self-restraint.

January 26, 1996

WITH THE SIGHTING of the new moon last Sunday, Muslims began the month-long fast of Ramadan. Between sunrise and sunset, they will forgo food, drink and sensual pleasures as a sign of faith. The daily fast is meant to build self-restraint, discipline and, by reminding each fasting person what an empty stomach feels like, a renewed sense of selflessness and generosity.

In Islamic cultures, Ramadan changes the rhythms of life in big cities and small towns alike, with the daily ritual of breaking fast at sundown becoming a particularly convivial occasion. As Muslims spread around the world -- estimates now place their number in the United States at some 6 million and growing -- they also bring the rituals of Ramadan.

Those rituals -- daily fasting, individual and communal prayers, reading or reciting the Koran, spiritual contemplation -- are designed to increase Muslims' connection both with Allah (the Arabic word for the same God that Jews and Christians pray to) and to the community. It is a time for making sure that the hungry get food, that the poor get charity and that anger and feuding take back seat to a sense of an overarching common bond.

Ramadan is a lunar month. Unlike Easter or Passover, Ramadan begins about 11 days earlier each year. Over a lifetime, a Muslim will experience Ramadan in every season of the year. (In summer months, longer days make for a more demanding fast.) That is a wise device for a religion that is growing rapidly world-wide. By observing Ramadan at a slightly different time each year, Islam distributes the difficulty of the fast evenly between Muslims living in northern and southern hemispheres.

Ramadan is not yet a household word in this country. But it has a lot to teach Americans of every faith. Discipline, restraint, spirituality, generosity toward those who go without enough food many times during the year -- the tenets of Ramadan are goals every American can admire.

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