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 reflection, purification and soul searching and abstinence from eating and drinking from sunrise to sundown.
The world's 1.2 billion Muslims, one-sixth of humanity, have started this year's observance of Ramadan. Only a small fraction of Muslims, about six million, live in the United States, but it is generally agreed that Islam is the fastest growing religion in this country.
In this year's Ramadan message, President Bush told the people of the United States that "our Muslim citizens have helped make our nation a stronger and more hopeful place through their faith, generosity and compassion."
Though more than four years have passed since the United States was attacked by terrorists in the name of Islam, the issue of Islam and terrorism has not died away. Imam Elahi of the "House of Wisdom" in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, says the condemnation of the terrorists and of terrorism is absolute and without reservation in Islam as sanctioned by the 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 fears and the suspicions surrounding them in the various non-Muslim cultures in which many of them live. Still Mr. Elahi, alongside with many other Islamic thinkers, takes a positive view.
Imam Elahi says Islam and the world's other monotheistic religions should use their spiritual strength to weather the storm of terrorism. The real victory against terrorism, he says, may not come through weapons and military action but the power of the human will to depend on God alone. Abstaining from food and drink, he says, is one way to bring a person closer to God.
"Fasting was meant to cleanse the house of the heart from the dust of sin, selfishness, greed, pride, impatience and, most dangerous addictive of all, hypocrisy," explained Imam Elahi. "Appreciation for what we have and sympathy for those who suffer are among the fruits of fasting. Therefore, Ramadan is about experiencing a spiritual energy, which provides healing and harmony in the human family and creates a stronger personal discipline, a stronger community and a stronger country."
Fasting, daily prayers, alms giving, Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, the acknowledgment of the oneness of God and the mission of Mohammed as God's chosen messenger, make up the five pillars of Islam.
The beginning of the holy month of Ramadan varies in different parts of the world. It starts when the sliver of the new moon is sighted to the satisfaction of each Muslim community or country. This explains the difference in the first day of fasting between various Islamic countries.
The fasting season, believes Imam Elahi, affords the Muslims a unique spiritual opportunity.
"The fasting season is an opportunity for the faithful to experience a spiritual revolution and develop a new discipline in their relationship with themselves, their Lord and fellow human beings based on piety, humbleness and courtesy," he said.
Muslims trace the origin of their religion to the year 610 A.D. According to tradition, Mohammed Bin Abdallah, a member of the elitist Quraysh tribe from Mecca, received the first divine injunction on the "Night of Power" in the month of Ramadan. Muslims believe that Mohammed 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," he was told.
Within a hundred years of Mohammed'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 Mohammed is His messenger," calls the muezzin.
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 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 are dismayed that their religion today is linked with terrorism and violence. "Far from embracing violence," Imam Elahi of the House of Wisdom explains, "Islam is a religion that teaches compassion not only during Ramadan, but throughout the year."