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An Inside Look at Fasting During Ramadan in America - 2002-11-26

In Muslim nations across the globe, the Islamic month of Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection and spending time with family and friends. Many have the luxury of shifting their work schedules as the whole society revolves around fasting from dawn until sunset. In America, a small but growing Muslim population numbering several million must restrain from food and drink under different circumstances. How do they cope with the challenges of fasting in a non-Muslim society? Amy Nelson, a Muslim living in Durham, North Carolina, reports.

It's 5:15 p.m. at the Islamic Ahlul Bayt Center in Durham, North Carolina. Muslims from all over the area are gathering to break the fast, pray, and be with family and friends. Each weekend people from different ethnic backgrounds sponsor a meal for the whole group. On one night there might be curried lamb, daal, and rice; On another night there might be fried chicken, potato salad, and cornbread. The teenagers are in charge of setting up and serving the food.

The place is a bit frantic, but once everyone is seated and fed, the atmosphere becomes more relaxed. Some of the teenagers congregate outside. They joke about the various annoyances that come with fasting during Ramadan in America where they are often the only Muslims in their schools: bad breath that nobody understands, and having to answer questions like "You can't even drink water?"

Sakina Tailor, a ninth grader from Durham, says "When Ramadan comes around, I see how much time I take just eating and not really doing what I'm supposed to do. So I'll come home and just be like, okay, I can't eat so I guess I just have to read some Quran or I just have to do my homework because there's nothing else for me to do."

This is exactly the purpose of Ramadan, according to Mustapha Shoukee, who converted to Islam 24 years ago. He says the restrictions and rituals of the holy month short-circuit the basic habits that are with us from the day we are born. "So we eat when we don't want to eat, we wake up when we don't want to wake up, and we restrict our sexual energy to a time in which it is designated. Those patterns are broken in the month of Ramadan. You become more sensitive and aware and more clear about who you are and what you're about. You see people differently, you hear people differently. You're not the same person during this month," he said.

Mr. Shoukee, his wife and five sons recently returned to North Carolina from South Africa where they'd lived for five years in a large Muslim community. He says one of the benefits of being somewhere like South Africa during Ramadan is that there is a supportive social network and national recognition of the holiday. Also, he says, it was an eye-opening experience for his boys to live in a place where poverty is a common reality. But, he says, fasting can produce a greater awareness of poverty, no matter where you live. You feel the pangs of hunger and it's impossible not to think about food differently: Who has more of it, who has less. Still, says Zahra Shoukee, it's easy to take material comforts in America for granted. She points to a hit by singer Phil Collins as an example.

"Phil Collins talks about it, 'Just Another Day in Paradise,' which is kind of a joke because in his affluence he has created that paradise. He is one of the people living in that paradise, he sings a song about it, he makes money off being in that paradise, and God bless him if he gives a lot to charity. But one has to wonder, if you live an affluent life that is way above your needs, at what point is that right? Where is the balance redressed? Because when you have too much, somebody else is not having enough," Ms. Shoukee said.

Zahra Shoukee says she feels wealthiest in her home life. A stay at home mom, she's thankful for the time to fast and reflect alone while her boys are in school. But the family does almost everything else together. They break the fast, pray, share thoughts, and get up before dawn for the early morning meal called suhoor.

But others don't have it so easy. Abu Dharr Sabur is a bus driver who is on his route at sundown when Muslims are required to break their daily fast. He says he's not supposed to be eating on the bus, and that's just one side of it. "The spiritual aspect is the fasting while you're working, you tend to get irritable when you're fasting, at times, and you always have problems when dealing with the public," he said.

Mister Sabur says such experiences are a test of faith for him and a reminder to be patient. His experience is a common one for American Muslims who face social isolation and demanding work schedules that don't make allowances for ritual.

Mustapha Shoukee used to work at a job where he didn't get home until ten. He says America has always been a challenging place to fast because, in his mind, the nation tends to focus on material rather than spiritual values. "But having said that, the reward of restricting from it is greater. So I welcome all that, I don't criticize that. Bring on the difficulties. Because I know that by facing those difficulties, I will have true inner delight from it. The darker it is outside, the more light there will be inside," he said.

And in that spiritual perspective is a common thread for Muslims around the world. Whatever the difficulties, the end result is the same: A clearer heart and a stronger spiritual commitment.