The month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar and the holiest month of Islam, has begun. Faithful Muslims the world over have embarked on a month of reflection, purification and soul searching.
The 1.2 billion Muslims, one sixth of the world population, once again start this year's Ramadan under unusual circumstances. It is barely a year since the United States was attacked by terrorists, in the name of Islam. The attackers have been condemned by moderate Islamic authorities.
Imam Elahi, of the "House of Wisdom" in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, says the condemnation of terrorism is absolute in Islam, 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 trials and trepidation, given the atmosphere of suspicion surrounding them in the United States and elsewhere.
"As a matter of fact, it has been a very challenging year for us after September 11," he said. "It is very painful and unfair to see that the very foundation of the Islamic faith came under fire of all these accusations, which comes out of ignorance, spiritual illness or for personal political purposes. And, I think to overcome this problem, we need to open the channels of dialogue. But, for any dialogue to be successful, there should be the spirit of respect and tolerance and humbleness. The dialogue won't succeed if one party or both try to be arrogant. For those who accuse Islam of evil and terrorism," Imam Elahi explained, "the question is, what is evil about teachings of Islam emphasizing prayer, fasting, and charity and love. It is very clear that the essence of the Islamic faith and any other Abrahamic religion is about peace and justice."
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. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries that began fasting on Tuesday. Oman and Iran and some other countries began theirs on Wednesday.
Imam Elahi, like many other Islamic scholars, believes that to introduce certainty into this 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 the country. President George W. Bush, in his Ramadan message, said, "The Islam we know ... teaches the value and importance of charity, mercy, and peace."
The president has repeatedly stated that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam, as some would want the world's Muslims to believe. President Bush, for one, speaks of Islam "as a peace-loving religion," in his annual Ramadan message.
Imam Elahi says members of other religions who decry the Islamic faith are off base.
"Insulting the Prophet Mohammad is insulting prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them, because the Koran is not [only] about the mission of Prophet Mohammad, it is also about the mission of all those Abrahamic religions," Imam Elahi said. "As a matter of fact, the name of Mohammad is mentioned in the Koran only four times, while Prophet Abraham is mentioned 140 times..."
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!"
"Recite in the name of thy sustainer, the sustainer who has created humankind from germ cells."
In deference to the injunctions from the Koran, the fundamental scripture of the faith, adult Muslims begin a fast, avoiding food, drink and tobacco, from dawn to dusk, for a period of one month, until the sliver of the next moon appears. The Koran does not require travelers, nursing mothers, the sick and the soldiers on the march to fast. They 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 self-denial, purification, meditation and soul searching. Muslims are also called upon to suffer in solidarity with the less fortunate of the 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 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. 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 that the rise of a genuine Islamic revivalism is a positive force.
Many Muslims today are dismayed that their religion is linked with terrorism and violence. Imam Elahi of the House of Wisdom says Islam is a religion that teaches compassion, not only during Ramadan, but throughout the year.