Ramadan starts, Muslims look inward and outward


Raghid Shourbaji finds it difficult to put into words. There's something about Ramadan that is just different from the rest of the year.

"You feel it almost in the air everywhere," said the Clarksville man, a board member of the Howard Council Muslim Council. "Not only among Muslims -- even among non-Muslims. It's a serene and peaceful feeling that you get during this time."

With the sighting of the first crescent of the new moon this evening, Muslims in Maryland and around the world will begin the observation of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a period of fasting, prayer and good works. It is for many a time of joy spent with family and friends -- and of remembering those who are less fortunate.

Thousands in Maryland are expected to observe the fast. More than 52,000 Muslims live in the state, the eighth-largest Muslim population in the United States, according to the American Religion Data Archive at Pennsylvania State University.

Maqbool Patel says he will be thinking this year about victims of hunger in Africa and hurricanes in the Gulf Coast.

"You begin to feel for other human beings," said Patel, a founder and past president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore. "When we look at the TV news and we see people in Niger and other areas, they don't even have something to eat. So that is the kind of feeling you create in yourself. So you tend to become a person who can not only worry about your own well-being, but your other fellow human beings, too."

In that spirit, the Masjid al-Rahmah, the mosque of the Islamic society, collected more than 5,000 pounds of food and materials one Sunday last month for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Individual donors are expected to contribute more in the coming weeks.

"No. 1, the primary goal is to live in peace and tranquillity," said Patel, a married father of six who is an administrator at Coppin State University. "No. 2, look at the needs of the other folks, too, when it comes to basic food, clothing, shelter, etc. The fasting is the best time to train one to have that kind of feeling."

Roots of Ramadan

For Muslims, Ramadan marks the month in which God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Scripture directs the faithful to abstain from eating food, drinking beverages of any kind or engaging in sexual relations from sunrise to sunset during the month.

But, Shourbaji says, "It's more than that. No backbiting. No hot temper. You always try to increase your good deeds, because you get rewarded 10 times for every good deed that you do. You try to get yourself in a more spiritual kind of mental attitude that carries through all your practices during the day.

"I have to say it's something I enjoy," said Shourbaji, a married father of four who owns a commercial and residential cleaning business. "Once every year you get the opportunity to purify yourself, to try to get back to basics and abstain from what you might not some other days. I do enjoy it because nobody's forcing me to do it. I do it because I want to do it, and I do it because that pleases God."

Believers may break the fast each evening with iftar, a meal eaten after sunset. Typically, even families that have difficulty scheduling dinner together during the rest of the year make an effort to share the meal, often with other families and friends.

That's part of why Aya Sallam looks forward to Ramadan. The 16-year-old, a junior at River Hill High School in Clarksville who worships with her family at the Dar al-Taqwa mosque in Ellicott City, has been keeping the fast for half of her life.

"I like that we get to hang out with friends," she said. "The fun part is in the night."

A lesson

For Aya's mother, the experience carries a lesson.

"You really start to be so appreciative for what you have," said Rita Sallam, who, like Shourbaji, is a board member of the Howard County Muslim Association.

"It starts to enter your mind when you're fasting, when you're tired, when you've been working all day, that some people don't even get to break their fast," said Sallam, a marketer who gathers competitive intelligence for Oracle Corp. "They are too poor to eat regularly. You just start to really regain your humanity, your sense of community with the rest of the world, that you kind of lose during the year."

Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration with food, gifts and more visits with friends. Muslims pray that the experience of the fast will bring them closer to God.

"Once a year it gives everybody a training," Patel said. "This is the perfect time to do that because when we look at the world situation, all we see is chaos and turmoil. We want people to come back to the basic worshiping of God and contain themselves with patience and courage, and to try to live in peace and tranquillity with other men."


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