Fasting Isn't Just About Food

Fasting Isn't Just About Food

Muslim holy month encourages self-discipline and strengthens community.

Evening prayers had begun at the Islamic Heritage Center in Vienna when Abo Hamzah arrived. But in keeping with his religious traditions, he first quickly ate a date and had a drink of water before joining.

Later, during a more substantial meal, he would explain that he did this because it is what he and many other Muslims believe Mohammed did when breaking his fast during the month of Ramadan. "He used to break his fast with dates and water, then pray," said Abo Hamzah, a Fairfax resident.

Muslims believe Ramadan is the month during which Mohammed received the Quran, the book that forms the basis of their religion. This, they say, happened 1,435 years ago.

Mohammed is said to have received the Quran from God, whom they call Allah, through the angel Gabriel over the course of the month. Ramadan ends with the feast of Eid, which this year falls around Nov. 13.

The date shifts from year to year. "Arabic months are 30 days, so it comes earlier every year," said Mohamed Ahmed of Herndon.

During the month, Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. "It's not just a fast of food," said Vienna resident Abdel Zahr. "You just behave. You control all of your senses."

Muslims make an extra effort to not curse others and to behave well. They do all of this for two reasons. The first is simply that they believe it is what Allah wished them to do. "The whole idea of Islam is for a person to submit," said Abo Hamzah. The word "Islam" is Arabic for submission.

Also, it helps strengthen one's self-control. After spending a month behaving more appropriately, they find that they can do it, and hopefully that behavior will spill over into the rest of the year. "It was like a school for him," Zahr said.

Finally it helps them to develop compassion for those less fortunate. "It teaches us how the poor and the people who are starving, how they feel," Zahr said.

MUSLIMS SOMETIMES wake up a bit before dawn and have a small meal prior to the dawn prayers, known as Salat-Ul-Fajr. Afterward, they do not eat or drink anything until after sundown.

Then come the dates, a bit of water and the fourth of the five daily prayers, known as Salat-Ul-Magrib. Then the real meal.

The men's meal at the Center — the women broke their fast in a different room in accordance with the traditions of this group of Muslims — was a multicourse affair. With the exception of the dates, any food is permitted. Crispy fried samosas, soup, salad, rice, lamb so tender it fell off the bone and meat with grilled okra were mixed with typically American staples, pizza and ginger ale. All were followed by a creamy rice pudding.

On Nov. 3, the topic of conversation at the Islamic Heritage Center, 262 Cedar Lane S.E., mostly in Arabic, invariably turned to the election. Several present had not yet heard that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., had called to concede the presidential election.

Any topic of conversation is permitted, but what is required is that there be some kind of talk. "Actually, the etiquette is to speak while eating," Abo Hamzah said.

This helps for those in the community to get to know each other and strengthens the bonds of the community. "Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan, these people are all from different countries," said Ahmed.

Also, it helps people to realize when they are full and not overeat. "They [people centuries ago] didn't used to eat as much, but they were successful," Abo Hamzah said.

Also, they believe it is what Allah wishes them to do. Abo Hamzah explained that the group practices what is known as "Orthodox Islam." In order for them to worship, they need "authentic verification" that it is specifically permitted.

This, he said, is another part of submitting. If Allah wishes to be worshipped in a certain way, he said, then that is the way they will do it.

Muslims, while they are happy to help others to understand their religion, do not necessarily seek to convert others, believing instead that those who are interested will seek them out. "If a person is sincere about wanting to find the truth, God will show him that truth," Abo Hamzah said.