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Ramadan offers chance for better understanding

October 26, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Two years ago, after I interviewed Maryland Correctional Training Center chaplain Ismael Ibraheen, I asked him if he'd like to go out to lunch. He couldn't, he said, because he was fasting for Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

Ramadan begins tomorrow and for observant Muslims it's a time of sacrifice and spiritual renewal, according to Syed Qasim Burmi, imam of the Islamic Society of Western Maryland, which has a mosque on Day Road in Hagerstown.

Burmi, originally from Burma, or Myanmar, as it is now known, has been in Hagerstown for three years. He now leads a spiritual community of 40 to 50 families, he said, adding that it is "growing constantly."

Ramadan is not a feast day, he said, but a time of obligatory worship that takes the form of fasting from before dawn until after sunset every day of the month.

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There is no formal preparation for this before Ramadan begins, he said, but "mentally, we prepare. We make up our minds and get ready and resolve to stop doing the bad things we used to do, bad habits like too much talking or smoking. Or drinking and doing drugs, which are forbidden anyway to us."

Except for the sick and very young children, Burmi said the rules for fasting are strict. Not a sip of water is allowed during the hours of fasting, and even prescription medicine should be taken after sunset, Burmi said, unless the doctor specifically orders that it be taken during the day. Nor can husband and wife have any sexual contact.

Remembering how many times I grab a snack or a cup of coffee during the day, I asked Burmi whether some Muslims find it too difficult to comply with the rules of the Ramadan fast.

It is difficult, he said, because one feels the pangs of hunger and thirst, but it is something God has told his people that they must do.

"If someone has to go to work to support their family, they're not going to say the work is too hard. When we get to the end of life and God says 'I told you to fast' and you didn't, what will your answer be?" Burmi said.

Fasting is a reminder of our debt to God, Burmi said.

"Through it, we become closer to God Almighty. He doesn't eat and he doesn't drink. If we feel the pangs of hunger and thirst, if we go through the same thing as those who don't have a lot, then we are more inclined to share," he said.

Fasting also can improve health, Burmi said.

"The physical benefits are many. All day long we keep eating, which is not good for our health. Some sicknesses we get because of our diet. The fast takes a lot of unhealthy things from us and we get a little bit better every day. When we fast, a lot of things go away," Burmi said.

Some people are exempted from fasting because of their health. According to material provided through the mosque, menstruating women or those bleeding after childbirth should not fast, though they're expected to fast at other times to make up for days they've lost.

Those who are chronically ill and unable to fast at all must still fulfill their obligation by feeding meals to others, Burmi said.

Fasting is such a part of Islam that it's not just a once-a-year thing, Burmi said.

"It's recommended that we fast every month, or the 14th, 15th and 16th and on Mondays and Thursdays every week," he said.

Fasting is not the only spiritual component of Ramadan, Burmi said.

"At nighttime also we gather at the mosque and pray and listen to the Koran recited by someone who knows the whole Koran by heart," he said.

Burmi explained that it is important to Muslims that in every century some people memorize the Koran so that it is preserved without change from generation to generation. The process of learning it is difficult, he said, but can be done by those who have a serious commitment to it.

At the end of Ramadan comes the month of Shawwaal, and Burmi said that on the first day of that month, the families of the mosque gather to pray, eat and allow their children to play together. On those days the members don't work, nor do children attend school, he said.

It would be easy for the members of the Islamic Society to keep to themselves and not bother to explain their traditions to the larger community of Washington County. But for the past two years, they have chosen instead to help organize events in which people of all faiths learn about each other's traditions.

I'm grateful for their resolve, because if there is one place on the planet where people of different faiths can live together peaceably and work jointly for a better community, then there's hope that the same thing can happen in the rest of the world. No matter what your faith, that's something all of us should be able to celebrate.

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