Ramadan Series Part 1: From the beginning

Posted on August 11, 2010

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PLEASE NOTE:  I started this project last year, and will continue to this project for the 2010 Ramadan.  Below are some of my reflections, observations, and experiences.  I welcome positive comments, clarifications, and experiences.  If you have any questions about Ramadan, please feel free to ask.  I will do my best to answer them.  Ramadan 2010 posts will be on a new page named San Francisco Ramadan Series.

This project starts with my husband. There is no better point of departure because it is through him that I have the opportunity to experience Ramadan firsthand. It is he who opened my heart and mind to search for meaning in the obvious acts of fasting and praying. My husband is compassionate, generous, loving, and kind. He attributes these characteristics to Islam, and it is during Ramadan that his heart, mind, and soul are spiritually fortified.  For the first year, the only thing I could really see about Ramadan was fasting.  Perhaps I should say the lack of eating. I really couldn’t get past it to see the meaning of the act. Maybe it is where I was spiritually that was blocking my ability to see the whole picture. Ramadan is the time people give thanks to Allah for the blessings in their lives. Daily life goes on while fasting, but slows, allowing the faithful to reconnect with and fortify the connection to personal, familial and communal values and traditions. They also say fasting softens the heart, weakening the blocks to spiritual enlightenment and connecting deeply with God.  The heart is softened to those less fortunate, the self, and those who seek forgiveness. Prayer and reading the Koran and Haddith (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadith) provide spiritual nourishment, guidance, and inspiration.  Much like other faiths that fast, Muslims take the opportunity to reap the physical, spiritual, and psychological benefits that come with fasting and prayer.

On the morning of our first Ramadan, I had no idea what to expect; only a vague inkling around “fasting for 30 days.” My husband told me that fasting lasts from sunrise to sunset, which seemed more reasonable than what I assumed would be not eating at all for 30 days. To be exact, no eating, drinking, smoking, or sexual activity from sunrise to sunset.  Prayer five times a day to give thanks to God, with extra time for reading the Quran and spiritual reflection on how its message can be integrated into everyday life, to break bad habits and set goals for the coming year. There is a sunrise meal, Suhur, and Iftar at sunset when the fast is broken with the Dua prayer and a date. I love watching my husband preparation for Iftar. A pot of coffee is brewed, a bowl of fresh fruit, a plate of dates, juices, water, and a cigarette are all laid out, ready for the call to prayer to alert him the time has come to end the day’s fast. At sundown, the melodic adhan starts. “Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar….” There are adhan from all over the world available on the internet. My favorite is the adhan from Egypt. I never tire of hearing it. To hear the adhan and learn more about it, follow this link to a beautifully shot video project on the changing of the traditional adhan in Egypt, Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo http://media.gfem.org/node/11237.

When we are not having Iftar at home, we are either at a neighborhood halal restaurant or taking up a friend or family member’s invitation to share a meal.  In the late afternoon, the local shops become busy with shoppers picking up items to enjoy after the sun goes down. Dates, juices, fresh fruits and traditional sweets are savored with the soups, salads, rice, meats, cheeses, coffee and tea that are enjoyed after a long day of fasting. Meals are usually quiet at first, then everyone perks up with food, drink, and caffeine.  As someone who has difficulty imagining skipping even one meal, it surprises me how the majority of Muslims enjoy fasting and don’t look for excuses to get out of it. If one does miss the fast (for illness or during travel) it can be made up. Children, elderly, pregnant and nursing women are also exempt from fasting.  We always spend one Iftar at Noor al Islam Mosque’s Ramadan open house. I’ve meet and talked to the most interesting people each year; Muslims and non-Muslims visiting to quench their curiosity about Islam and Ramadan.

I spent one Sunday of Ramadan with a group called Project FEED that is coordinated by a small group of young, Muslim women.  They take donations of both food and money to make meals for the less fortunate. Everyone is a volunteer, and the location is usually someone’s apartment. The location on the Sunday I volunteered was a small, student apartment filled wall-to-wall with food, boxes, and young volunteers. I made peanut butter sandwiches, snapped photos, and did a lot of talking with the other volunteers. 750+ lunches were prepared, packaged, moved down 2 flights of stairs and loaded into volunteers’ cars, then the meals were distributed in the Tenderloin and Civic Center areas. It was especially amazing to me that people spent the day laboring to make and distribute food for others while fasting.  As a non-Muslim, Ramadan feels like Christmas. Or the way it used to when I was a child. People are nicer, charity and kindness are emphasized. There are always donations of food and money taken at the mosque for the less fortunate. It’s a requirement of Ramadan to donate food and a percentage of income to the less fortunate.

The holiday that marks the end of Ramadan is called Eid-ul Fitr, or Eid. It is a three day festival of breaking the fast. On Eid morning, families give a special Eid prayer, fulfill the Zakat-al Fitr, a small donation for each member of the family to charity, and then break the fast for the last time. Then the celebration begins. Many people attend a mosque sponsored morning prayer to see friends and family, and then spend the day out with loved ones to celebrate the Eid holiday. This year we attended the Eid celebration sponsored by the Yemeni mosque in our neighborhood.  As people came in, they wished us Eid Mubarak on their way into make their prayers.  Children were running around like crazy, wearing new outfits, trading candies, some stopping for a moment to pose for a quick picture.  Friends embraced, many cheeks were kissed.  It was a very good day.

This is my collection of photos accompanying this text, taken during Ramadan 2009.  You can move through the gallery by clicking on the photo or the name of the next photograph in the bottom, right corner, below the photo.

Boston.com has a beautiful selection of Pictures for Ramadan 2009 here.

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