The discipline of Ramadan is daunting: While the sun is up each day during Islam’s holiest month, Muslims will fast from food and water and sex and be extra careful about what they say and hear. It’s a time to purify the body, an avenue for purifying the soul.
It sounds stringent enough in a place with a temperate climate, like East Tennessee. But consider that most Muslims live in southern Asia, Indonesia and Africa, and that the lunar calendar nudges Ramadan into high summer every few years. Long days of triple-digit temperatures and not even a sip of water – it sounds like a recipe for misery.
On the contrary, Muslims say, Ramadan is the most wonderful time of the year.
I sat down with six members of the Muslim community at their masjid, or mosque, on Antioch Road this week, to talk about the holiday, which celebrates the revealing of the Koran, which Muslims regard as God’s word, to the prophet Muhammad.
Ramadan, the ninth month in the Arabic calendar, begins this weekend, the moment when the slightest sliver of the new crescent moon becomes visible. It will conclude at the end of the four-week lunar cycle, marked by Eid-al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast.
The group was full of anticipation. Although most of them have lived in the U.S. for decades and are American citizens, they recalled memories from their homelands.
“You feel different, and there is a liveliness during Ramadan,” said Ahmed Atyia, a pharmacist originally from Egypt. “Fasting is good for your body, to cleanse it and give it a rest. You feel sad after the month ends.”
It is a month not only to change habits, said Taneem Aziz, an engineer and the Muslim Community’s president, but also a month of extra blessing. The effect of good deeds is literally multiplied 10 times, the Koran says.
“All the senses are focused on worship,” said Aziz, who was born in Bangladesh. “With the discipline, it is God making it easy for us to feel good and celebrate.”
People are friendlier and try to be more patient during the month. Crime goes down. Homes open up to family, friends and strangers like no other time of the year.
“The community is one of the reasons we are excited,” said Aziz’s daughter, Imani, a 19-year-old student at East Tennessee State University and the only American-born Muslim in this conversation. “Every night, we worship together.”
Life slows down during the day in Muslim countries. Families rise long before dawn to eat together. People who go to work feel unhurried, but many businesses just shut down. The normal daily prayers continue, perhaps with greater attention and attendance at the mosques.
But when prayers are finished at sundown, communities spring to life in a different way. The Koran commands Muslims to break the fast as soon as they can each night, and they do it with gusto.
Food comes out from almost every house, spread on tables lining the streets or served under colorful, open-air tents. Festive tin lanterns with colored glass glow in windows. As people pass by, whether or not they are strangers or Muslims, they are likely to be invited to stop for food – and conversations and games and songs and prayers and extended readings from the Koran. The nightly celebrations can last almost until the early morning meal begins the daily round again.
“It’s like having Christmas for a month,” Natalia Suit, a Christian friend who lived in Cairo, told me later. “Ramadan really is the best time of the year there.”
The holiday, of course, takes on a different cast in the U.S., where Muslims are a minority in the same way Christians are a minority in Pakistan or Egypt. No one expressed any resentment or regret. They accept the differences.
“We don’t feel conflicted, living in America,” said Yusuf Gangat, a pharmacist originally from Pakistan. “The purpose is to worship God in everything. It’s a very easy life, once you accept it.”
Besides, they agreed, the times are changing, and non-Muslim Americans are growing more aware of Ramadan. They notice in ways both small and significant, from seeing their holidays printed on calendars to having employers provide time off.
Imani Aziz was smiling broadly during the entire conversation. She simply enjoyed thinking about the month to come, she explained.
“I’m just excited it’s almost here,” she said.
Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 22 Aug 2009.