The month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar and the holiest month of Islam, has begun. Muslims the world over have embarked on a month of abstinence from eating and drinking,reflection, purification and soul searching.
More than 1.2 billion Muslims, one sixth of humanity, have started this year's Ramadan under highly unusual circumstances. It is now five years since the United States was attacked by terrorists in the name of Islam and more than three years since the war in Iraq, a predominantly Muslim country.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the bloody battles fought daily in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, have brought into focus one of the most complex issues of our time.
The battle was joined recently by Pope Benedict XVI, when he quoted unflattering language about the Prophet of Islam. The Pontiff quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor as saying, "show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman."
The Pope's speech created an uproar in the Islamic world and made a bad situation only worse. But the criticism of his remarks was generally muted and non-confrontational. Realizing the delicate situation the world was facing, Islamic leaders, by and large, tried to minimize the impact of the Pontiff's comments, emphasizing more on the commonalities of the world's three major monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Imam Elahi of the "House of Wisdom" in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, says terror and terrorism are condemned in Islam and such condemnation is absolute and without reservation - as sanctioned by the holy Koran and the "sunnah," the deeds of the prophet of Islam as recorded and passed to the successive Muslim generations. Imam Elahi speaks for many Muslims when he talks about their trials and trepidation, given the "Christian" nature of the Western culture in which they live and the suspicion surrounding them. Still Elahi, alongside with many other Islamic thinkers, takes a positive view of the situation and says there is a common spiritual dimension to Ramadan, among the monotheistic religions - one that could become a more powerful leverage of strength and solidarity.
"A big part of this prejudice and discrimination against Islam and Muslim community comes out of ignorance," Elahi said. "Extremism is a disease that affects many people with different religious backgrounds. This is not only a Muslim community problem. In general, many Muslims are suffering from the same problem. We only suffer more because we are also accused. Islam is a religion of balance, a religion of reason and a religion of peace and justice. The violence and extremism that exist in the Middle East, you need to go to the root causes of the problem. We condemn any kind of terrorism, individual or otherwise."
The holy month of Ramadan starts when the sliver of the new moon is sighted to the satisfaction of each community or country. This explains the divergence which exists between the East and the West and the difference in the first day of fasting between various Islamic countries.
Elahi, like many other Islamic scholars, believes that to introduce certainty into his annual ritual of the sighting the new moon requires resorting to science and seeking assistance from the astonishing advances made in astronomy aided by modern super computers.
Fasting, daily prayers, alms giving, Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, the acknowledgment of the oneness of God and the mission of Mohammad as God's chosen messenger, make up the five pillars of Islam.
There are about six million Muslims in the United States. It is generally agreed that Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in this country. The proximity of the holy month of Ramadan and the mid-term congressional elections and the special circumstances of the Muslims living in the United States highlight the importance of the political process and of an active participation of the Muslim community to take advantage of the process. Elahi believes the Muslim participation is a must.
"We encourage the Muslim community - come November, [to vote in] the congressional elections and (for) other positions," Elahi said. "Our recommendation to the Islamic community is that, if you want to remove ... this prejudice, then you have to be part of the system. Participate in the elections. Elect the right people. Voting is our constitutional right and is also a responsibility.
President Bush, in his Ramadan message, says that "Ramadan and the upcoming holiday seasons are a good time to remember the common values that bind us together." He goes on to say, "Society is enriched by our Muslim citizens whose commitment to faith reminds us of religious freedom in our society."
The president of the United States has repeatedly stated that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam, as some believe. He has spoken of Islam as "a peace loving religion."
Because of Elahi's wide contacts with the the Muslim communities in the United States, he is in a unique position to address the question of Muslim feelings, in the face of what are perceived as attacks by certain Evangelical Protestant circles and the Catholic hierarchy against Islam and the person of the Prophet.
"We recommend that Muslims and Christians work together," Elahi said. "Actually, if you consider the population of Muslims and Chritians, we are almost half the population of this planet. If we work together and keep the treasures of cooperation and understanding, we can make this planet a paradise. We are against a clash of religions and civilizations. We are very saddened and disappointed that the Pope made that statement recently. It was a big mistake. Wrong quotation from wrong source."
Muslims trace the origin of their religion to the year 610 A.D. According to tradition, Mohammad Bin Abdallah - a member of the elitist Quraysh tribe from Mecca - received the first divine injunction on the "Night of Power" during the month of Ramadan. Muslims believe that Mohammad was suddenly engulfed by the divine presence, commanding him to "recite!"
"Read! In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created. Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood."
In deference to the injunctions from the Koran, the fundamental scripture of the faith, adult Muslims begin a fast, avoiding food, drink and smoke from dawn to dusk for a period of one month, until the sliver of the next moon appears.
The new month heralds a day known as "Eid-al-Fitr," or the festivities of breaking the fast. The "Eid" is celebrated with much exuberance and is marked by charity, family visits and messages of congratulations for successfully completing and enduring a month of self-denial.
The Koran does not require travelers, nursing mothers, the sick and soldiers on the march to fast. But these are expected to make up the days missed, as the opportunity arises. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are called upon to shift from their daily routine to an attitude of introspection, purification, meditation and soul searching. Muslims are also called upon to suffer in solidarity with the less fortunate of the world.
Within a hundred years of Mohammad's call, Islam spread to much of the populated world. The Koran emphasizes reason, perpetual search for truth, careful observation, contemplation and transcendence beyond the transitory, the insignificant and the ephemeral.
In the process of religious search, the faithful find the "signs" and the "clarifiers" (ayat and bayyenat in Arabic) that lead to God as the eternal truth and the source of all existence.
"I bear witness that there is no God but Allah I bear witness that Mohammad is His messenger."
At the call of the muezzin from the golden minarets of the mosques all over the Islamic world, hundreds of millions turn toward Mecca - the birthplace of the Prophet of Islam and the site of the first House of God built by Prophet Abraham - and prostrate themselves in humility before their Creator.
The religion-based Islamic quest became a foundation for scientific method and the discoveries made by early Islamic scholars precede European research and learning. Many advances in natural sciences, math, medicine and astronomy are attributable to Islamic scholarship in the early centuries of Islam's expansion.
It is generally believed that Islamic scholars and scientists transmitted much of the classical knowledge of the ancient world. Since then, ethnic, tribal and cultural differences have superseded the Islamic injunctions for perpetual search. But many modern Muslims seem convinced the rise of a genuine Islamic revivalism as a positive force may once again place Islamic communities on the right path.
Many Muslims today are dismayed that their religion is sometimes linked with terrorism and violence. "Far from embracing violence," Imam Elahi of the House of Wisdom says, "Islam is a religion that teaches compassion not only during Ramadan, but throughout the year."