Ramadan Fasting,
Special Prayers Begin

Observance is pillar of Muslim faith

By Stephen Schwartz
Chronicle Staff Writer

The sacred month of Ramadan, a major observance for Muslims, begins today.

In a period of religious affirmation, Muslims abstain from food, drink and other sensual pleasures from daybreak to sunset.

Bay Area Muslims – like their counterparts around the world – will gather in mosques for special prayers, known as tarawih, performed after the daily nighttime prayer.

Abdus Salam of the Northern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Santa Clara stressed that "the fast at Ramadan increases the Muslim believer’s compassion for those in need while also strengthening self-purification, the sense of spirituality, and togetherness with family and friends. But above all, it is a yearly lesson in self-discipline."

Ramadan was the Arabic calendar month when the revelations later compiled in the Koran first came to the Prophet Muhammad (s). Fasting in honor of Ramadan is one of the "five pillars" of Islamic belief. The others are the declaration of faith, daily prayers, charity and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The nighttime prayers of Ramadan include a commemoration of the Night of Power, the first night when Mohammed (s) received the divine message through the angel Gabriel. The Night of Power is celebrated on one of the last odd-numbered days of Ramadan.

But there is also a deeper, mystical character to nighttime prayer. "Among the holy aspects of Ramadan, it is recommended to pray in the night when you are not separate from the Almighty," said Shaykh Hisham Kabbani of the Masjid At-Tawhid Islamic community in Mountain View. "Allah says, wake up at night for prayer. Night is stronger than day, for at night one is not polluted by the materialistic cares of daily life."

Such a view is among many similarities between Islam and Judaism, in that mystically oriented Jews also pray at night.

Muslim congregations are notable for their "melting pot" quality. Services draw believers in a full variety of colors, from Chinese Muslims to new Muslims of Latin American origin.

African-American followers of traditional Islam, in contrast to the Farrakhan nationalist movement, belong to mosques all over the Bay Area.

At Shaykh Hisham’s mosque, Saturday night meditation services begin with the Muslim call to prayer, including repeated declarations of God’s power, the principle that there is only one God, and the place of Mohammed as Prophet (s).

As the evening service continues, regular and personal prayers are followed by opening of the curtain that separates men and women, so that both, as well as children crowding around the participants, may hear a talk by the shaykh on spirituality.

The shaykh tehn leads the congregation in dhikr, or remembrance, based on the chanting of the phrase "La ilaha illallah," (There is no God but God), supplemented by other refrains repeating God’s names.

Shaykh Hisham and his congregation are Sufis, affiliated with the Naqshbandi order, a body with millions of followers in Central Asia and elsewhere.

Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and Ramadan occurs about 11 days earlier each year, running through the winter months, when days are shorter and fasting is easier, as well as summer, when days are longer and fasting is more of a challenge.

The fast is required of Muslims who are mentally and physically fit, past the age of puberty and unlikely to suffer physical or mental injury.

Children are not required to fast before puberty although they are encouraged to do so as much as they can.

Others who are exempted include the ill, menstruating or pregnant women and nursing mothers, those who are too old, the mentally incapacitated and those not responsible for their actions.

Muslims who travel more than about 50 miles from home during Ramadan are not required to fast immediately but, as with other who are temporarily prevented from observing the fast, must make it up at another time.

The fast is broken each day with water and dates. In addition to fasting, Muslims read the entire Koran during the month.

The end of Ramadan is known as "Eid al Fitr," the Feast of Fast Breaking, and lasts for three days.

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