SIKESTON - This weekend, area Muslims have begun a month of fasting along with those all around the world during Ramadan.
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan begins today or Monday this year, according to Mowaffaq Said of Sikeston. "It depends on the birth of the new crescent for the lunar month of Ramadan," said Said. The month lasts either 29 or 30 days, depending on the lunar cycle. "Ramadan is the most holy lunar month," he said.
One of the core beliefs of Islam, fasting during this time is required for all adult Muslims of all sects. "This is one of the Five Pillars of Islam," Said said. "Absolutely - regardless of the nationality, regardless of their color."
Ramadan is about "becoming more religious, more pious," Said said, as well as meditation on how to live a more righteous life.
"You may eat before sunrise and it is encouraged," said Said, "then you refrain from eating, drinking, sexual relations, tobacco as well as from malicious speech till sunset. No water - nothing."
Once the sun sets, participants can eat, drink, have sex with their spouse and smoke, but still must refrain from malicious words.
"It sounds rough but believe me - it is very enjoyable," said Said. He explained its a different mood, a different mind set, which brings the observer closer to God.
"The first two days are difficult, but after that you get used to it," said Said. "It becomes a daily routine after the first or second day."
Those who are sick or traveling are excused from fasting, but must make it up later unless they are critically ill or elderly. If they are not able to fast at all, they must feed the poor as an alternative.
When they feel hunger, they may use that to remind themselves that there are those who are poor and feel hunger all the time.
Relatives who smoke have the most difficulty, Said said, as they have to wait until sundown to have a cigarette.
It is also a time for extra prayers and looking after the poor. "It is the month of generosity, a month mercy, a month of forgiveness," Said said.
Ramadan peaks during the last 10 days of the lunar month with additional prayer as Muslims prepare themselves for Lailat al-Qadr, or "the night of power," which is the anniversary of the time when the prophet Mohammed received the Koran.
The specific day, however, was never revealed. "You never know," said Said. "It's kept vague so people will continue to do the prayers, worship and do good deeds."
According to Mohammed's wife, Aisha, the prophet said to look for Lailat al-Qadr on an odd-numbered night during the last 10 days of Ramadan. "The reward for it is great," Said said. During this time, the angel Gabriel is believed to descend with a company of angels who ask for blessings on everyone who is remembering Allah.
"There are a lot of verses in the Koran about Ramadan," Said said, as well as many "hadith," or direct quotes from Mohammed relating to Ramadan.
In addition to the spiritual blessings, "the other advantages are the health benefits," Said said. Similar to Catholics and the observance of Lent, those who are overweight or who smoke or drink often use Ramadan as a time to work on amending any of their habits.
In Sikeston, area Muslim families gather once per week at sunset to break their fast together with a potluck dinner. "We eat - but don't overdo it," Said said. As the stomach shrinks while fasting, it is better to eat lightly "rather than overeat and suffer. It will not be healthy if they overeat."
This year on Nov. 8, Sikeston Muslim families will also gather at the Best Western in Sikeston with those from Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff to break their fast together at sunset.
Fasting for children is encouraged but purely voluntary until they reach "the age of takleef," Said said. "That's when you become a responsible person."
The age of takleef is about age 14. "Every person is different," Said said, being associated approximately with puberty.
Said's children range in age from 4 to 10. While below the age of mandatory participation, his oldest three decided to try fasting during Ramadan last year but ended up calling home for lunch sometimes. "They tried," Said smiled, noting that it can be difficult for children with the smells and sights of all their peers eating around them at school.