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My Turn: A Ramadan letter to my friends

Dark. Slightly after 3 a.m. Still air, heavy. As I awaken I hear, above the hum of the bedroom fan, faint familiar sounds, echoes, that seem to resonate across the cosmos: “God is Great, God is Great . . .; Prayer is better than sleep,” as the faithful are beckoned to prayer.

It’s the Islamic month of Ramadan. I’m up before Fajr, before dawn, to eat a small meal, perform my ablutions and prepare to say my prayers.

Imsak. Start the fast.

Hot. Humid. It’s going to be a long day: 17 hours before I again eat and drink. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the obligatory pillars of Islam, a month when all willing Muslims, if they are healthy and beyond puberty, daily abstain from drinking, eating, smoking and sex between dawn and sunset.

First light. Fast.

Permit me, please, to share these Ramadan reflections with you. While, politically speaking, it’s often challenging to be Muslim in America, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. The United States is one of the easiest countries to live in as a Muslim. Here, Muslims can freely lead Sharia-compliant lives. No one tells us whether, how or when to pray. No one tells a woman to be covered and submissive. No one enforces the fast. No one intercedes between me and God.

That doesn’t make it easy. In America’s 24/7, tweeting, 4G-wired, consumer-based society, a break from materialism is difficult, and the journey back to reconnect with the center of our being – our fitra, our innate nature – can be challenging.

Ramadan is a time for the most intimate of dialogues – with oneself, with the Beloved.

Muslims are informed, “It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was (first) bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man” and its first verse was, “Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created man out of a germ-cell. Read, for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know!”

Each day, each year, each Ramadan, I learn more what I do not know, and while I recognize that God lies “between the human being and his heart,” I learn, too, that grace, forgiveness and love from my Beloved is limitless, and welcomes me back whenever I stray.

Ramadan is the time we are called to return to oneself.

The Islamic hijri calendar is lunar. Each year Ramadan arrives 11 days sooner. In winter, fasting days are short. In July, fasting can last more than 17 hours, a challenge during a hot New England summer.

Iftar, the daily meal that breaks the fast, begins, in the tradition of prophet Muhammad, by eating dates. Families and friends gather together, Muslims and non-Muslim, and extra congregational prayers (Tarawih) are performed at night.

Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, Holiday of Fast-Breaking, and is celebrated with community prayer and feasting, and, as Easter and Passover are celebrated, with new clothes and gifts for children.

Ramadan is a time to fast, pray, reflect and renew. To heal relationships, to try and keep from getting agitated or angry toward others, to re-establish paths to goodness and hospitality.

Ramadan is God’s challenge to mankind: Be mindful of who you are, be mindful of God’s blessings, be compassionate. Embrace truth.

Daily, our thirst and hunger reminds us not only of the abundance, and sometimes excesses, of our lives but of the many for whom life each day is a struggle with poverty and hunger, of those for whom potable water is an unknown luxury, of those for whom disease and illiteracy is epidemic, of those who dwell in dark, desolate corners of our earth.

Throughout the world, especially throughout the Muslim world today, people are consumed by wars, conflict, poverty and occupation. Globally, the world is being pillaged for profit, the gifts of the Beloved are daily abused and their beauty forsaken.

I’m in awe of those who sustain their fast under such circumstances. Indeed, how does one making $2 a day sustain a family? How does a community survive? How does one have strength to embrace Ramadan when each day seems a struggle in darkness? How do we, who live in such privilege, allow that to continue?

This week, too, on the ninth day of Av, Jews prayed, reflected and fasted on Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of their ancient temples in Jerusalem and, in a more general way, all calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. They prayed from the Book of Lamentations: “How lonely . . . sits the city, once full of life, now desolate.”

Once full of life, now desolate.

All faiths fast. In our Scriptures, in our traditions and stories of the value of fasting, contemplation and renewal – for example, on Tisha B’Av we hear the promise of the Messiah following the story of tragedy – we find connectedness to God and to each other.

We find paths from darkness to light.

“The day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light,” Romans 13:12.

As people of faith we put ourselves in the hands of the Beloved.

And our Beloved puts us, and this earth, in each other’s hands.

As Americans, Muslims, non-Muslims, believers, secularists, atheists, humanists, I believe we’re united in our desire to live within communities where truth, justice and peace prevail.

Ramadan reminds me I have no dignity unless all have dignity. Ramadan reminds me I deserve no respect until all have respect and that I will be hungry until all are fed. Within the beauty of Ramadan, in the armor of light that is God’s embrace, I pray for the weak, the sick and the marginalized. I reach to embrace the dispossessed and exploited.

Muslims welcome Ramadan. This gift from God, this challenge to contemplate our commitment to our Beloved, to our brothers and sisters, to all humanity and to this earth is a blessing for which I am thankful.

Rumi wrote on Ramadan: “Where friends unite together, there in the midst of the house / by God, is a spreading plain.”

Let us gather there, you and I, on that spreading plain, in justice, peace and love.

(Robert Azzi is a writer and photographer living in Exeter. He may be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com.)

I want to thank the Monitor for publishing this well written article. I am privileged to work in a company that has a very diverse workforce. At last count we had people from more than 4 dozen countries including Africa and Eastern Europe. I am pleased to call many of my Muslim co-workers my friend. They are hard working, intelligent, fun loving and faithful. All good traits in my book. Taking the time to understand another's faith is a very good thing which is why America is so successful. We work together in peace and understanding every day and we find it difficult that in other areas of the world people are fighting in the name of religion. Here in America there is a radical Church that goes around protesting at funerals of brave Americans who served their country. We all these people their first Amendment rights but we push back and let them know their religion of hate is not welcome. My only question to Moderate Muslims. Why do you allow a small but growing portion your religion tarnish your religion with terrorist acts of hate? Why haven't we heard you speak up in unison? Unconditionally when the words God is great is yelled in Arabic people run in fear because a terrorist act is about to happen.

Sorry the word Unconditionally should have been Unfortunately (thanks for nothing spell check).

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