Heba Diab hurriedly joined the five other Muslim women facing the front of the prayer room of the mosque on Comstock Ave. in Syracuse, N.Y. She was almost late, and the 22-year-old took a deep breath and bowed her head to calm herself. For the next 10 minutes, she listened to passages from the Quran and whispered prayers as she stood, bowed at the waist and knelt with head to the floor.
This is a scene that takes place in mosques around the country every evening. However, during the month of Ramadan, the scene expands to include many who are at best indifferent in joining others of the Ummah, the community of believers, in prayer. This is because Ramadan has special meaning for Muslims the world over.
Ramadan is the holy month of fasting for those who practice Islam. Its stated purpose is one of renewal and connection with God. This year Muslims all over the world will eat nothing, drink nothing (including water) and shun intercourse from sunrise to sunset for an entire month. They won’t even smoke during daylight hours. At night, the day’s fast is broken with dinner.
Atika Abdur-rahim grew up in Brooklyn’s Arab Town. She remembers weekly community dinners every Friday during Ramadan.
“You could break fast with others any night of the week,” she said. “The mosque usually had a little something. But on Fridays, it was time for feasting and fun.”
Abdur-rahim smiled as she recalled the foods of many cultures. “Food from Pakistan, Yemen, India, Saudi Arabia, Africa. It’s all different. What a great way to learn about other cultures and come together with our faith in common.”
Foudil Selmoune, the assistant Imam at the mosque in Syracuse, said food is planned for each night of Ramadan.
“The sense of community worship is important,” he said. “It helps us bond as brothers and sisters. Especially here in America. It’s good to see others who feel as you do.”
Selmoune said that fasting during Ramadan is more than going without food. “It’s about showing our submission to God, Allah, and bringing ourselves closer to him,” he said.
Because Islam follows a lunar calendar, the start of Ramadan depends upon sighting the moon in its first crescent after the new moon, at the time of sundown. Due to the time of year, this tiny sliver is barely visible in North America. The moon must be sighted and confirmed by a committee of the Islamic Society of North America, which uses the West Coast as its reference point. Because Islam follows a lunar calendar, Ramadan starts on a different date each year.
G. Michael Stathis, who teaches classes on the Middle East at Southern Utah University, said observing the fast during Ramadan is the fourth pillar of Islam.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Ramadan was the month that Muhammad, the prophet, received the first verses of the Qur’an from the angel Gabriel. It’s a very special time of reflection and making a commitment to be better. It’s a time of renewal and spiritual rebirth, even though it’s not the beginning of the year.”
Despite its importance, there are no official preparations for Ramadan. Abdur-rahim said some people fast one meal a day the week before to get used to the idea of going without food.
Selmoune said that prior to Ramadan Muslims should take stock of their lives and use Ramadan as a time to begin improvement.
Diab looks forward to Ramadan for even more personal reasons. “It’s the time I think the most clearly,” she said. “And the clearest I’ve ever thought was the Ramadan when I was 16. That was when I decided to wear the scarf.”
Diab’s family came to America from Baghdad when she was five. She enjoyed growing up in America, but was confused about what she wanted. Diab said her parents never tried to force her to follow Islam. “They really thought it should be my own choice,” she said. “They never pressured me. Religion – any religion – is really a personal thing.”
Most girls begin to wear head coverings at 12 or 13, about the time their menstrual cycles start. But Diab resisted the scarf until one Ramadan.
“As I observed the fast, I really thought about these things,” she said. “Who I was, what I wanted, my relationship with God. I began to think with clarity. All of the reasons for me not to wear the scarf began to seem silly.”
Diab looked around the room. Nothing fancy, just four freshly-painted white walls.
“It’s very simple, really. When you know God’s will for yourself, you follow it. And Ramadan is a time to come closer and learn God’s will. And for me, every Ramadan is an anniversary. Ramadan reminds me of who I truly am.”