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Fasting Plays Important Role In Muslim Observance

SATURDAY, FEB. 4, 1995

Growing up Catholic in the South, I had little opportunity - and regrettably, little desire - to learn about other faiths. So my first encounter with Islam, which after Christianity is the world’s secondlargest religion, occurred in an unlikely place: a children’s book.

“King of the Wind” was the story of a magnificent racehorse named Sham, an ancestor of the famous Man O’ War. Sham was born in Morocco during the Muslim month of Ramadan.

In beginning her tale, author Marguerite Henry simply and beautifully explains how the boy who cared for the foal had to fast during Ramadan, how even the horses of the sultan’s stable could not eat or drink during the long, dry month. And she wrote about the last day of the fast, when a public crier emerged from a tower to blow his trumpet four times, for the four winds of heaven, to announce that the fast was over.

Long after I outgrew Marguerite Henry books, the imagery stuck with me.

The holy period, vaguely similar to Christianity’s Lent and Judaism’s Yom Kippur, began this week for the world’s 1 billion Muslims. Ramadan is not just about fasting; it’s also about penitence and mercy and charity.

But the fast is the most grueling part. For 29 or 30 days, beginning with the new moon of the ninth lunar month, Muslims don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. To do so willfully, said Imam Omar Shaheed of Masjid As-Salaam in Columbia, S.C., is depravity.

“It is said that if we fast for the rest of our lives, we cannot make up for that day,” Shaheed said.

Even during the dark hours, Muslims are admonished to eat lightly, to subsist on the food of a poor person. In doing so, they gain empathy for the needy and, more importantly, are “more regardful” of God, Shaheed said.

Most major religions teach fasting as a way to communicate with the divine by purifying the body, mind and spirit, write Paul and Patricia Bragg in “The Miracle of Fasting.” Zoroaster, Aristotle, Confucius and Mahatma Ghandi were all advocates of the fast.

“All the great spiritual leaders since history began have had great confidence in the power of fasting, not only to improve the physical body, but to have a keener understanding of the power higher than ourselves,” the Braggs write.

xxxx Ramadan facts Ramadan, which began Wednesday after the sighting of the new moon, is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar. Tradition holds that it’s the month in which the first revelation of the Qur’an (Koran) was given to Muhammad. In religious practice, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and abstain from smoking and sex. The month encourages selfexamination, inner cleansing, forgiveness and concern for others. An estimated 6 million Muslims live in the United States.

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