By SARA ARTHURS
After a month of focusing on the spiritual rather than the physical, Muslims in northwestern Ohio and around the globe will celebrate with a feast this weekend.
Eid al-Fitr is the conclusion of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It’s celebrated as the month in which Muhammad received the revelations which became the Quran. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food or drink from dawn to sunset.
“What we get in exchange” for suffering hunger and thirst is to “learn how to control our urges and desires,” said Imam Talal Eid, Th.D., director of religious affairs for the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.
When you deprive yourself of something you like, like food, “It allows me to reflect upon it” and hopefully appreciate how blessed you are to have food and drink available whenever you want, said Yousif Rojeab, associate professor of pharmaceutics at Ohio Northern University and adviser to its Muslim Student Association. Ramadan is a time of peace and blessing, when people come together. All, rich or poor, do the same thing. The idea is that these barriers melt significantly in Ramadan.
“We’re all fasting for the same number of hours,” Rojeab said.
Muslims also make a point during the month to feed the hungry, because “we need to understand how people feel about food,” said Dr. Zaheer Hasan of the Islamic Society Of Northwest Ohio in Toledo and chairman for public relations for the United Muslim Association of Toledo. The association of Toledo joins with a Maumee Presbyterian church and distributes food to those in need in the area.
Eid said Muslims are encouraged to prepare themselves and clear their schedules — not scheduling big business meetings during the month if possible, for example. The idea is that reducing earthly business will increase the spiritual connection with the creator.
Instead, they read the Quran, and they pray.
“Even marital relations during fasting hours are prohibited,” Eid said.
And refraining from physical impulses like eating, drinking and sexual activity allows the spiritual self to rise, Hasan said.
“We nurture our spirit with the word of God,” Hasan said.
He added that Ramadan also includes “controlling our mouth … not saying bad things” like lying or backbiting. If someone is angry, they do not swear or yell.
“We cannot yell,” said Imam Farooq Aboelzahab of the Islamic Society of Northwest Ohio in Toledo. “We cannot scream. We cannot call names.”
The goal is to become more pious and spiritual — to get away from the physical and focus on what is essential, the spiritual being, said Song-Chong Lee, Ph.D., associate professor in religious studies and philosophy at the University of Findlay. Muslims are encouraged to read the entire Quran during the month of Ramadan, and there is a heavy emphasis upon reflection, he said.
Lee is not Muslim but teaches about multiple religions at the University of Findlay. His specialty is comparative religion: how does, say, piety, differ from one religion to another, or how does Ramadan compare with fasting in Judaism or Christianity.
Eid said each day of Ramadan, Muslims may wake up about 3:45 a.m., and have until 4:20 a.m. to eat. Once they start the day’s fast, nothing can pass their lips.
“We can only breathe,” nothing else, he said.
However, only those who are able to fast do so. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, seniors and those with medical conditions may be exempted, Eid said. Even for someone healthy, abstaining from food and drink for up to 16 hours is “not easy,” he said.
Someone who’s otherwise healthy but happens to be sick for a few days does not have to fast, and can make it up at another time of year, Rojeab said. Or, if someone is chronically ill and cannot fast, they may donate to charity instead.
Breaking the fast in the evening is approached differently in different cultures. Some have a date and water, others soup and salad, others more complicated dishes. The date is something that Muhammad encouraged, to break the fast with a piece of date and water or milk, Eid said.
The month is a lunar month, so it shifts by about 10 days each year. This year’s observance started May 26, but next year it will start about May 16, Eid said. This means sometimes Ramadan is in winter, when the days are shorter.
But this time of year, breaking the fast around sunset means eating at 9 p.m.
Rojeab said people unfamiliar with Ramadan may see it as “a punishment” to Muslims, but in fact it is “a blessing.” Growing up, it was something he would look forward to. Children and families would come together during Ramadan, united in their fasting.
Rojeab, born and raised in Kuwait to Iraqi parents, considers himself Iraqi-American and became a naturalized U.S. citizen two years ago.
“We’re all feeling it together,” he said, and it is a “very joyous occasion.”
A day of celebration
Believe it or not, when Ramadan is finished, “We feel sad,” Aboelzahab said. After all, it’s a time to “give thanks to God.”
However, at the end of the month is a “big feast,” similar to Christmas, Eid said.
Eid al-Fitr is the feast of breaking the fast, a day of food, celebration and the exchanging of gifts. This year, Eid al-Fitr is celebrated on Sunday.
“It is a big deal for us,” Aboelzahab said.
Muslims feast, go to the mosque and pray special prayers. Children receive gifts. People may go to the cemetery to visit their loved ones. Often people dress up, buying new outfits specially for that day, Eid said. And they visit with friends, perhaps saying they will be at home between, say, 2 and 3 p.m., so people are free to stop by, he said.
Eid said if the feast is on a weekday, people are generally working and not everyone can take the day off. This year, since Eid al-Fitr falls on Sunday, celebrations will be held in Toledo.
ONU’s Muslim Student Association holds an Eid dinner for the campus and community most years, although it will not be doing so this year because it is summer. Rojeab said at Ohio Northern, roughly 50 to 70 students identify themselves as Muslims and there are also some Muslim faculty. Rojeab said the the turnout is usually good, primarily students but also some community members.
Hasan, too, has seen a supportive community. He said friends and neighbors are respectful — not eating in front of Muslim co-workers who are fasting, for example. People from area Christian churches and political leaders have joined them in iftar dinners, the evening meals at the end of the day’s fast.
At the same time, Eid said, in the evenings, when night prayers have been finished, they often see police cruising around the mosque, trying to offer a sense of protection.
“It’s always like that. … We are afraid of retaliation,” he said, noting that the mosque was the target of arson in 2012.
Eid added that he wanted to share “prayers for peace.” As a Muslim he does not see a Christian as having less value, and the reverse should also be true, he said. People are different, but the universe was created for people to enjoy, “not to destroy each other,” Eid said.
Rojeab said one thing people don’t realize is that 90 percent of the people killed by the Islamic State group and other extremists are in fact Muslims.
“They kill everybody,” he said. “But they start with the Muslims.”
The ONU Muslim Student Association has also done joint events with the students of Bluffton University. Rojeab met students in Bluffton who have told him that ONU’s group are the first Muslims they’ve ever met. So, he said, “I don’t blame anybody” for having negative impressions of Muslims — if you’ve never interacted with someone of this faith, you may not know. But once people have Muslim co-workers or neighbors, their perceptions change.
Lee said Americans’ knowledge of Islam and information they receive about it from the media is “very narrow.” He noted that Islam is a religion practiced by 1.5 billion people and, contrary to people’s assumptions, it isn’t just the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia, he said.
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By SARA ARTHURS