While the Arab world contends with the conflict between the United States and Iraq, Muslims here and around the world are turning to the Ramadan holiday as a source of solace.
As the lunar calendar followed by about a billion Muslims worldwide makes its way around the seasons, it brings the Islamic holy month of Ramadan earlier each Western year.
In recent years, the cycle has made Ramadan, a month of daylong fasting that will begin this weekend, nearly coincide with Hanukkah and Christmas. In the United States, some 8 million will celebrate the holiday.
Ramadan begins with the new moon, and its commencement is not simultaneous throughout the world. Saudi Arabia, which includes Mecca and Medina, the holiest Islamic shrines, announced the beginning of Ramadan for today. Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf States will also begin observance today.
However, Egypt's chief Islamic official, Mufti Nasr Farid Wassel, said it would begin tomorrow in his country. In the Bay Area, the start of the holiday is tomorrow.
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, required for all members of the faith. The other pillars are the declaration of belief in a single god and the prophecy of Mohammed, daily prayers, the payment of charity and, for those who can afford it, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
During Ramadan, the ninth month in the 12-month Islamic calendar, Muslims fast during the daylight hours, break their fast with evening feasts drawing family and friends, and recite daily portions of the Koran, Islam's holy scripture.
``The fasting during Ramadan clears your mind and spirit. It affects your vision, making it clearer. It's about our whole life as Muslims,'' said Slimane Salim, an Algerian- born Muslim in his 30s who is a counter worker at Caffe Trieste in North Beach.
But although Ramadan is best known to non-Muslims for fasting and feasting, its religious significance is more closely associated with the revelation of the Koran by God to the prophet Mohammed.
``The essential reason we fast during Ramadan, rather than any other month, is because we believe that during Ramadan the Koran was first received by the Prophet Mohammed,'' said Maha ElGenaidi, executive director of Islamic Networks Inc., an educational group in San Jose.
Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is a religion tracing its origins to Abraham.
Muslims honor Moses, Jesus and other prophets of the earlier revelations of one God, and view Islam as the completion of the monotheistic message delivered to Jews and Christians. Preaching in mosques often centers on the heroic life of Moses, known as Musa in the Koran, and Muslims honor the compassionate works of Jesus, called Isa in Arabic, and his mother Mary, for whom a surah, or chapter, of the Koran is named.
But Muslims also believe that the message of the Koran is the final testament from God, offering unambiguous evidence of the creator's greatness and the call to follow divine law. They view the Koran as the direct word of the creator to Mohammed, delivered by the angel Gabriel, or Jibril. The angel began by commanding Mohammed, ``Read, in the name of your Lord who created humankind from a tiny germ!''
The prophet Mohammed preached about Ramadan, ``Oh people! The Month of Allah the High has come with blessings, mercy and forgiveness. To Allah, this month is the best month. Its days are the best days. Its nights the best of all nights. Its hours the best of all hours. . . . So ask your Lord with truthful intentions and pure hearts that He would grant you success in fasting and reading His Book.''
Ramadan also serves Muslims as a reminder of those whose situation is disadvantaged, such as the homeless and hungry.
``It's hard in the modern world to fast during the day, but those among our people who survived the prison camps and the other atrocities of the Balkan war will tend to celebrate it more,'' said Kenan Begovic of Menlo Park, a leader of California's Bosnian Muslim community.
``Among our people, Islam is a personal matter, and each will decide for him or herself how extensive their observance may be. But Bajram, at the end of Ramadan, remains a very big and popular holiday in Bosnia,'' he said.
Some activists have chosen this Ramadan to emphasize Muslim unity in protest against the U.S. conflict with Iraq.
Lorraine Al-Rawi, a Los Angeles resident who converted to Islam and is married to an Iraqi, was visiting Bay Area friends just before the bombing this week.
``In this special time of year, when all religions are celebrating their special holidays, knowing that many of the Iraqi people have been fasting for 96 months brings each and every one of us a responsibility,'' she said.
But while President Clinton commented on his reluctance to bomb Iraq during the holiday month, Shaikh Hisham Kabbani of Los Altos, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council in America, noted that nothing in Islamic law specifically prohibits warfare during Ramadan.
It was during Ramadan, Kabbani said, that Syrian and Egyptian forces attacked Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Kabbani said many of the organized Islamic groups in the United States are overly critical of U.S. policy and misrepresent the feelings of rank-and-file Muslims.
``We are peaceful Americans,'' he said. ``Our children are born here. We are sharing
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