Observing Ramzan takes on new meaning
Frances Grandy Taylor :
Ramzan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar used by Muslims, is the most spiritual time in Islam, and this year it arrives at an unsettled time for those in America.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have focused American attention on Islam as never before. TV talk shows debate the meaning of jihad, and Muslim women who wear traditional garb risk hostile reactions. The hijab, or traditional scarf, has become subjected to curiosity and sometimes hostility.
"This year will be different. In the mosques, they will be talking about the bombing, and we will be saying special prayers for our country and for the people in Afghanistan," said Shaima Afaq, 17, of Hartford, Conn.
"Prayers said during this time carry special significance," she said. "Peace for this country, that is what we will be praying for."
Ramadan began Saturday with the first sighting of the new moon. At this time, observant Muslim families awake before dawn for suhur, the first and only meal of the day until sunset.
For 30 days, Muslims abstain from food or water from sunrise to sunset. Observing the fast is one of the five pillars of Islam, an act of faith required for all Muslims who are physically able.
Each evening the fast is broken, and families attend the mosque for daily prayers. It is also a time of giving to those less fortunate. At the end of Ramzan, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which also marks the end of the fast. Family and friends get together, and children receive candy and presents. "Ramzan is the month that the Quran was revealed [to Muhammad]; it's a time for spiritual renewal," said Noora Brown of New Britain, Conn. "It's not just a fast from food and water. It's a fast from saying bad words or losing your temper. You don't want to lose the reward of the fast, so you try to avoid those kinds of things."
"As bad as things have been, some good has come out of it," said Ghada Salhab of West Hartford. "People are asking questions and wanting to know about Islam and about Ramzan and what it means."
"My colleagues ask me questions, and they have borrowed books from me," said Lisa Kling, an East Hartford resident. "I think they are also very curious about women and Islam. They think we can't talk for ourselves, or that we are all oppressed and that our husbands make us dress the way we do."
Muslim children may feel more self-conscious about their faith because they hear so many things about Muslims, said Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America and a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary.
"They know people are saying things, and they are seeing all kinds of things on TV. I think teachers should make a special effort this year to talk to their Muslim students," said Mattson.
Because Ramzan occurs during a general holiday season this year, "there is the opportunity to talk about it in school along with Hanukkah and Christmas. Some awareness of the holiday would be good right now," said Mattson.
Bookstores have been swamped with requests for books about Islam and the Middle East, as well as books on Afghanistan and terrorism. Publishers are churning out new titles by the day to keep up with the interest. Oprah Winfrey recently devoted a show to "Islam 101."
"We have sold quite a few Qurans. People are obviously looking for [an] understanding of Islam," said Teri LaClair, area marketing director for Borders Books & Music, adding that books about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden also have become popular.
Ali Antar is president of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford. He said talks he has given over the last few months have provided an opportunity to clear up misconceptions.
"They [audience members] are most curious about the Taliban; they want to know if [the Taliban] represent Islam; they ask a lot of questions about jihad," said Antar.
"These are very legitimate questions, but there are so many people who don't know that the roots of Islam are deep into Christianity and Judaism. The Ten Commandments are the same in Islam."
Other misconceptions include a belief that Muslims are primarily Arabs, Antar said. "In fact, the majority of Muslims in the world come from Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - Arabs are actually a minority among Muslims."
Islam is not new to America, Antar said, adding that "Muslims have been here for generations." About 2 million African-Americans are Muslims, Antar said, and it is believed that many slaves brought to American shores were Muslims.
A small but significant number of white Americans have also converted to Islam, many of them professionals and educators whose work or daily life brought them in contact with the faith, Antar said. Hispanic Americans have also been among converts to Islam.
Terry D'Italia recently took a 10-hour course on Islam at Hartford Seminary, and went to a study group on Islam sponsored by his church. He wondered if there was something in Islam that would have caused the events of Sept. 11.
"I just felt it was important to become informed, and I knew next to nothing about Islam," said D'Italia, of Hartford. "I'm glad I went. I think the thing that stuck with me most is that we should not hold a billion Muslims around the world responsible for the acts of a few hundred or a thousand people. I think what should come out of this is that we need to become [more] tolerant, not less."
(Frances Grandy Taylor is a staff writer for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.)