Ramadan: a time of healing

January 13, 1998|By Corey Saylor

WE are in the midst of the holiest month for the second-largest religion in America. But you might not know it, because it goes virtually unnoticed by much of the country.

Ramadan, which started at the end of December, is the Muslim commemoration of God's first revelation of the holy book, the Koran, to the Prophet Mohammed.

Hate crime

This year the observance was marred when a star and a crescent, symbols of Islam, placed near the White House to recognize Ramadan were defaced on Dec. 26, 1996, with a Nazi swastika. A Christian cross and a Jewish menorah nearby were untouched, an indication that the American Muslim community is a primary focus for religious hate crimes.

Media coverage of this outrageous incident was adequate but frequently this is not the case when it comes to Muslims. A tiny minority of Muslims who commit violent acts while claiming the legitimacy of Islam are allowed to speak for the entire religion. The productive contributions of the vast majority of Muslims in this country are generally ignored.

Ramadan is a time for Muslims to reflect on our faith.

Muslims observe Ramadan by fasting during daylight hours. When I converted to Islam 10 years ago I understood this in principle. However, I did not fathom the kind of sacrifice it takes -- or what it ultimately gives in return.

The first year my focus was on the hunger and the discomfort. Never had I gone so long without food. But in time I learned to enjoy the fast.

I have begun to look forward to Ramadan, to anticipate its arrival as I once anticipated opening my presents on Christmas morning.

Let me take you through a day of fasting. I wake up before sunrise and share a small quiet meal with my wife. Usually we eat dates, which are traditional food for Muslims preparing for and ending their fast. Then, shortly before sunrise, we will perform the first of five daily prayers.

During daylight hours I will eat no food and drink no water. I avoid letting non-Muslims know I am fasting since I fear that my fast will become a way to show off to those around me and that would compromise the principle behind the fast.

Breaking the fast

At sunset we break our fast. Traditionally Muslims eat three dates and have a small glass of warm water so as not to shock the stomach. Often we will join my wife's family or go to the mosque and join our community for this meal.

Later we participate in a special prayer that is held each night during this holy month. During this prayer one-thirtieth of the Koran is recited so that by the end of the month the whole Koran has been read.

On paper this seems easy. Some days it is. Other days I find myself fighting my temper as my patience grows short. Occasionally I have headaches or feel drained.

But, as time has passed, I have matured in my fasting and it now encompasses far more than a focus on physical discomfort. I receive an insight into the plight of people who lack the freedom to choose hunger. I have now come to terms with my short temper and have overcome it. I try to smile more and be patient with people. I take time to review the last year and see how I need to improve my behavior.

These insights are what makes this period of fasting important to Muslims. If you are merely acting out rituals you are fulfilling the requirements of religion but you are not benefiting from its essence. Ramadan is the time of true Jihad -- in the sense that Muslims understand the term, not the corrupted meaning pushed by those who have mistranslated and misused it. Jihad means to ''strive to one's utmost'' -- to push oneself to become a better human being. The primary place this struggle occurs is in the heart and soul.

In this month of Ramadan, I hope that more Americans will begin to see past the stereotypes and start seeing us -- and respecting us for who we actually are.

Corey Saylor is the media coordinator at the American Muslim Council in Washington and edits the group's newsletter, the AMC Report.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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