At sundown the day before Eid al Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the men who gathered at the Islamic Heritage Center in Vienna broke their fast with a light snack of dates, yogurt, bananas, sweets and pizza. The women were breaking their fast in another room. All of them had been fasting from sunrise to nightfall for a month, neither eating nor drinking during the day.
The snack was followed by the fourth prayer of the day, which marks sundown, and then the real meal began, with a vinaigrette salad, lamb and both white and brown rice.
As the meal was being laid out, Abdul Mumin explained that it is mandatory that every Muslim fast during Ramadan. "In the Koran, Allah tells us to fast during the 30 days of Ramadan to become more righteous," he said. "Ramadan comes to help Muslims gain a sense of piety."
The story behind Ramadan, he said, is that this is the month when the Koran was brought down from Paradise to a lower level of Heaven and then was revealed to the prophet Mohammed piece by piece by the angel Gabriel.
"This is the best month of Islam," said Mouad Zouitni, adding Muslims reach out more to the poor during Ramadan and do their best to treat others respectfully.
"A human being tries his best to change during this month," said Zouitni. He explained that fasting is a humbling experience because it is done not for oneself but for Allah.
Mumin said rewards for good deeds may be doubled or tripled during Ramadan, and Zouitni pointed out that the intent behind good deeds should only be "to please Allah and to ask for his forgiveness."
ONE OF the good deeds required by Ramadan is that every Muslim family must give away five and-a-half pounds of food for each person in the household, said Abdul Zahr. This is called Zakat El-Fitr, which translates to something like "food sacrifice," he said. "The idea is to bring happiness not only to yourself but to others."
Piled next to the entrance to the Heritage Center were sacks of rice and other dry goods, which Zahr said would be distributed the next day.
Other requirements of Ramadan, said Zahr, are that Muslims do not lie or back-bite or otherwise harm others and that they try to smile at each person they see.
"You basically apply the things you should always be doing," said Zouitni.
The last 10 days of the month are the most intense, Zouitni said. "We pray a lot more at night than we do during the rest of the year," he said. He explained that a Muslim is required to pray five times a day year-round, but during Ramadan, a voluntary sixth prayer, called Taraweeh, is added at night. The prayer, he said, usually lasts about an hour and is most rigorously observed during the last 10 days. "Many mosques open their doors all night during the last 10 days. You really devote yourself during that time," he said.
One reason for this increased devotion is that one of the last 10 nights is the especially holy night of Laylat Al-Qadir. Worshipping on this night is equivalent to worshipping for 1,000 months, or 83 years, said Zahr. However, it is not known exactly which night Laylat Al-Qadir will fall on. It will be an odd-numbered night and should be marked by pleasant weather and a light rain, and in the morning the sun should rise white like the moon, said Zahr. The reason the exact day was not revealed by Mohammed, he said, "is so that we would really seek it during the last 10 days of Ramadan."
THE DAY OF Eid al Fitr, which was last Thursday, marks the end of Ramadan. "There are a lot of things a Muslim is required to do during Eid," said Zahr. These include wearing new clothes, exchanging gifts and visiting neighbors, he said. "You want to bring happiness to others, whether they are Muslim or not," said Zahr.
Zahr said the rigors of Ramadan can help one to be a better person for the rest of the year. "Hopefully, it affects me during the year," he said. "This is one of the best signs that Allah has accepted what you did during Ramadan."
"By the end, you feel your faith is getting stronger," said Moez Krichene.
"Sometimes, you feel disappointed if you feel you didn't benefit enough," said Zouitni, pointing out that one never knows if one will be alive for the next Ramadan.
Krichene, who is from Tunisia, said Ramadan has a different feel in the Islamic countries, partly because the entire population observes the holy month. "You don't walk into the city and find somebody eating," he said, adding that the streets are deserted at sundown, when it is time to break the fast.
He also pointed out that the summer heat of most Muslim countries makes it more difficult not to drink all day.
Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan comes 11 days earlier each year, Krichene explained, and fasting in the summertime is more difficult anywhere, with longer days and higher temperatures.
"It's exciting to fast a little differently each year," he said.