The selflessness of Muslims shines during Ramadan

Muslims in the Treasure Valley started fasting the lunar month of Ramadan on Saturday, May 27. This year’s fast is noteworthy because the international Islamic Center of Boise moved to a new location near the crossing of West Ustick Road and Christine Street in Boise. The new center was remodeled over several months and it opened in mid-April, just in time for this year’s Ramadan.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam that practicing Muslims must follow. The other four pillars are the declaration of faith, the five daily prayers, the mandatory almsgiving and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The declaration of faith states that “there is no deity but God and Muhammad is his prophet and servant.” It is all that is required of someone wanting to convert.

The five daily prayers consist of praying five times daily facing the direction of Mecca. Historically speaking, the first direction for Muslims was Jerusalem before it was later changed to Mecca.

The mandatory almsgiving is collected annually and distributed to several categories of people including the poor, the needy, the orphans and the widows.

The once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca was instituted shortly before the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. It is a ritual that commemorates the trials of Abraham and his family, and it allows the faithful to visit the birthplace of Islam.

Fasting for Ramadan means that Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk. It is not a new divine ordainment for Muslims alone. It can be found in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, where Jesus fasted in the desert 40 days. This is why certain Christian denominations observe Lent.

A daily fast for a Muslim consists of waking up before dawn and eating a light meal that will sustain a person during the long summer days. At sunset, it is customary to break the fast with dates and milk or juice. This is usually followed by a light bulgur soup and filled pastry appetizers wrapped in phyllo dough. Then it is off to the night prayer at the local mosque, followed by the Taraweeh prayers, which are optional prayers offered during this religious month.

Ramadan means different things to different people. For a spiritual person, it is a time for exerting dominance over the basic instincts of food, water and other carnal desires. It is a time to forgo those desires and to become more conscious of the presence of God all around us.

By the same token, it reminds the fasting person of how those who are hungry feel when they do not have enough food to eat. This practice is especially important at teaching empathy skills as well as patience.

During my annual trip to Algeria in May, I saw many displaced sub-Saharan refugees and migrants who fled their countries due to droughts, famines or wars. I have seen entire families with pregnant women, young children and elderly persons panhandling for money in the streets.

These refugees gather in groves at the entrances of mosques, where they rely on the benevolence of worshipers. During this month, people help each other and are certainly more sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and the refugees who are struggling to survive every day.

A fasting person becomes a generous person who gives rather than takes from society. Indeed, many individuals, organizations and restaurants open soup kitchens at sunset to help the indigent and the homeless get a decent meal.

There are, however, some cultural aspects of Ramadan that prevent a fasting person from reaping the true benefits of fasting. Some Muslims gain weight during this month due to low levels of physical activity during the day followed by binge eating at night. Fasting the month of Ramadan is not a great diet plan, nor was it meant to be.

The month of Ramadan is a special time for Muslims all over the world. When done for the right reasons, it is a transformational experience that brings out the best in the faithful by learning empathy skills and how to be patient with others. It is a time to focus inward and to become more conscious of those who are in need of our help. Ramadan is a time when selflessness claims victory over selfishness.

Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.