Ismail Hameduddin just moved to Columbia from Saudi Arabia to begin his freshman year at MU. Since his arrival, he has been adapting to a new culture, as well as to the demands of being a university student in the United States.
But, this year, Hameduddin has also had to accommodate new rules that govern the beginning of Ramadan, Islam’s most important religious observance. Back home, Hameduddin said, desert tribes proclaim the start of Ramadan each year after witnessing the birth of the ninth full moon of the lunar calendar.
“Bedouins are out in the desert where there have to be at least two witnesses,” Hameduddin said. “Then they will call in and the announcement will be on the news.”
In late August, the Fiqh Council of North America, a group of Islamic scholars that meets regularly to interpret Muslim law in the U.S. and Canada, announced it would use astronomical calculations to determine the beginning of the Islamic lunar months.
Although the council’s decision has generated some controversy in the Muslim world, its calculations determined that Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting and self-deprivation, began Saturday.
Hameduddin said observing Ramadan in Columbia, which has a Muslim population of about 1,000 people, will be much different for him.
“In Saudi Arabia, shops close at prayer time,” he said. “You hear the prayer call and everyone you know is Muslim.”
Ramadan commemorates the passing down of the first verses of the Quran by Allah to the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 610. Once the sun sets, no food or drink may be consumed so that Muslims may focus on taqwa, an intense awareness of God’s presence.
According to the Hadith, a book about the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, “Whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith and hoping for a reward from Allah, then all his previous sins will be forgiven.”
Each night during Ramadan, a portion of the Quran is read aloud at mosques around the world. Prayers during the night hours are added to the traditional five daily prayers of the Islamic faith.
Imam Nabeel Khan, spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, said the occasion brings Muslims closer to Allah.
“During prayer we focus on the spirit of Ramadan, including self-discipline, appreciating what you have, feeling for those who aren’t as fortunate as you are and building awareness that God is always watching you,” he said. “When you are fasting you are more aware of that than at any other time.”
Muslims are also forbidden to drink, smoke and have sexual intercourse between dawn and sunset during Ramadan. In addition, they are also expected to refrain from violence and gossip and maintain purity of thought and action.
At the end of each day during Ramadan, Muslims and their families meet for iftar, the evening meal. Faeza Khan, who is studying journalism and biology at MU, was born in Bangladesh. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was 1 year old.
“Ramadan is one time where my family always eats together,” she said. “We appreciate the food and who you are eating with a lot more during this time.”
Khan also appreciates the chance to focus on her religion and strengthen her faith.
“Ramadan is a moment of clarity of our purpose in life,” she said.
Certain special treats and dishes are served only during Ramadan, with each family adhering to its own culinary tradition. In Iraq, klaicha, a date-filled sweet pastry, is served. Indonesians enjoy a layered cake of cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices, called lapis legit.
Maaz Maqbool, a graduate student at MU, said he always gets excited as the holy month approaches, even though it means having to wake before dawn. The early morning breakfast, called suhur, begins the fast. For Maqbool, suhur begins with dates.
“You wake up and smell some great food that you haven’t had all year,” Maqbool said.
The last 10 days of Ramadan are among the holiest of the year for Muslims. Many go to the mosque each night to observe vigil prayers; some spend the entire period there observing itikaf, or seclusion. The fasting of Ramadan will end with the appearance of the next full moon and mark the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, on Oct. 23, when Muslims will put on new clothes, attend community prayer and give gifts and make donations to local charities.
As he prepared for his first Ramadan away from his home, Hameduddin said the end of the celebration will be the most difficult.
“Eid is a time I will really miss my family,” he said. “I will feel very lonely.”