Sixteen-year-old Mona Ghannoum, soon to be a senior at Arcadia High School, is fasting again.
No, this is not some teenager’s dieting fad. Mona is practicing the disciplines of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month.
Mona is part of a larger community of Muslims in the Pasadena and Altadena area who gather together at the prayer center Masjid Al-Taqwa on North Lake Ave. to break the fast”called Iftar”each evening of Ramadan.
Until August 7, Islamic Muslims around the world will abstain from food, drink, and sex from sun up to sun down. During this holiest month of the year is the time they believe God revealed the Quran, the Islamic holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad. The second book of the Quran explains the obligation to fast.
“At first it was hard to explain why I wasn’t eating, but now my friends are used to it and come to me with their questions. They don’t ask anymore if it is it ok to eat around you”. Now I’ve actually had a lot of friends join me in fasting even if they aren’t Muslim,” Mona said, who is the Vice President of the youth group at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
Last year during the month-long fast Mona chose to play in a soccer game in the middle of a heat wave. She fainted on the field and had to be carried off. She said she learned her lesson and will not play sports again when Ramadan falls during the hottest part of the year.
“The fact that I can’t drink water is the really hard part. Today I found gum in my backpack and I’m a serial gum chewer and it was so hard that I couldn”t chew my gum. You just have take a breath and think you can get through this, you’ve been doing this for years,” Mona shared.
The most difficult challenges for the local Muslim community this year are the heat and the longer days. Ramadan rotates throughout the year based on the Islamic lunar calendar, allowing for the fasting to take place during every season of life. In winter fasting breaks much earlier when the sun goes down, but in the dead heat of the summer, the fast lasts a grueling 16 hours, with only an 8-hour break to eat.
“It’s a challenge when it’s longer, you have to prepare mentally and you have to get everything in order. You only have 8 hours of night time, so you have do any eating and drinking during that short amount of time,” Saleemah Muhammad said.
Aaron Abdus-Shakoor, the Chairman of the Mosque, tries to keep himself busy so the time passes quickly, but admitted he does have several difficult days where he has to ask God to help him.
“Sometimes I would just take a catnap or 15 minutes to close my eyes, sit still and just relax and try to rejuvenate myself. It’s something you expect, its part of it and you know it will pass. The first couple of days don’t seem to be as difficult as the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th, but then it starts becoming your routine,” Shakoor said.
Most of those gathered at Masjid Al-Taqwa agreed with Aaron that fasting during the 30 days of Ramadan becomes like a rhythm of daily life that they become accustomed to and even look forward to and enjoy the whole month.
“It’s a joy and a blessing, its not so much a struggle because most of us have been fasting for over 30 years, so when it comes you’re ready for it. It’ not hard until we get to about the 25th day,” Rasheedah Osakwe said, one of the original charter members who played an important role in obtaining the mosque.
Sumaku H. Ali considers it a blessing to even be alive and well today. When she was eight months old the hospital gave her up to die, telling her adopted mom who had her from when she was 10 days old to take her home because she would not live with tuberculosis, the disease her birth mother died from.
“I had said last year that if the first day of fasting would be on my birthday it would be a double blessing for me, which it is a double blessing. I thank the Lord almighty for holding me up through all I’ve been through,” Ali said
Ali brought chocolate cake for everyone to enjoy on the double celebration, the first night of breaking fast and her 62nd birthday.
“Ramadan is something I look forward to every year because it brightens up my life, it makes me remember more so what I’m supposed to do. We’re supposed to be this type of person every day of our life, but some of us just do it 29 or 30 days of the year,” Ali said.
Every hour put into fasting will receive blessings; yet fasting is only a small portion of Ramadan. Observers also commit to taking on a whole attitude toward people where they cannot argue or think ill of anyone. During the month Muslims must be kind, do good works, do charity, and think only good thoughts about the people around.
“Ramadan is a life source. It’s an opportunity to evaluate what you did last year and see what the possibilities are for you to correct and build on your life for this next year,” visiting Imam Karim Salah said.
New to the Muslim community three years ago, Latif El-Amon knows the truth of that statement.
“I shouldn’t even be here. I was a knucklehead. I’ve been shot three times. All my friends are dead or in the penitentiary. But that’s what Islam and Ramadan did for me. It cleansed me. It all connected like a jigsaw puzzle when you find the last piece,” El-Amon said.
Even beyond behavioral issues, Ramadan pushes observers to be more productive and more beneficial to the society and to others.
“Ramadan is the month of mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, observing someone’s character and refraining from arguments or fighting. It’s a one month period of time when someone should be extremely, extremely nice and helpful to others and helpful to connect with poor people, connect with the needy, worship God, and a chance to spend more time in the Quran,” Dr. Saleh Kholaki said.
Dr. Kholaki is a local dentist and also serves as the chair of the board for the Islamic Center of Southern California. He explained how an important part of Ramadan is giving 2.5 percent charity to the poor. During Ramadan they focus especially on giving to the poor because they are experiencing what it is like to go hungry and sympathizing with those who cannot afford to purchase food.
For that reason, many of the mosques will have a community meal each night of Ramadan to break the fast together and practice charity at the same time by inviting the homeless to partake.
The breaking of fast at the Masjid was like a big family gathering where everyone contributed and praised one another for their efforts. They come together for this meal every evening of Ramadan, building a strong sense of community that is more difficult to find in the U.S because there are fewer Muslims.
“It’s so joyful to share with everyone, we come with different ethnic groups, we come to have one meal together and socialize and at the same time we do prayers,” Mohamed Ghannoum said.
For most it was a wonderful reward, but for one woman her stomach had already gotten small so she had to save most of her plate for later to eat in the early morning before the dawn prayers at 3:30 am.
Several said they needed to pace themselves once they got to the evening meal because if they ate to much that night they might be sleepy the next morning. They also do not want to reverse the health benefits that come with purifying the body with fasting.
“Believe me it’s a wonderful opportunity to relax and take a breather from the abuse, the greasy food we eat and all the hormones. The body says, O thank God you’re fasting, it improves metabolism,” Dr. Kholaki said.
Even though he appreciates the health benefits, Dr. Kholaki’s biggest struggle is with caffeine withdrawal. He knows he has to pace himself before Ramadan begins because it would be too much of a shock to stop abruptly.
“I’m a coffee-drinker so if I don’t take caffeine I get headache. But what I would do is like the weeks before Ramadan, I lower my intake of caffeine,” Dr. Kholaki said.
Not everyone is mandated to fast. Children are exempt until they reach puberty, and also women who are menstruating are exempt, but will make up the missed days at the beginning or end of the month. Other exemptions include anyone who is sick, physically unable, traveling, or if fasting would be detrimental or dangerous to his or her health. Preserving life is the number one priority.
Mahasin Shaheed is not well so she is exempt from fasting, however she looks forward to Ramadan all year and is trying her best to only miss a few days.
“Fasting during Ramadan is so exhilarating. It feels like you’re in heaven already,” Shaheed said. “This month is training for the rest of the year when we should always be kind and generous to others.”
Shaheed told about an 8-year-old she had encountered that day who tried so hard to fast the whole day, but could not make it. He said, “I want to keep trying until I get it.”