Monday, August 16, 2010

The imam and the Ramadan fast

On Saturday night, I visited the Islamic Center of Mid-Manhattan looking to learn more about the fast of Ramadan, a month-long fast that goes on daily from sunrise to sundown.

As someone who's never fasted for longer than a day, the Ramadan fast fascinates me. Putting aside food, water, and any kind of nutrition between sunrise and sundown for a month already seems a difficult task. Add to that the heat of New York in August and the demanding work schedules of so many in the city and it seems an insufferable one. I imagine many Muslims working two jobs to get by, taxi drivers, parking attendants, having to take up this cross, so to speak, and I wonder how they get by.

I contacted Sheikh Amed Dewidar, imam of the Islamic Center, and he agreed to meet me on Saturday evening at the center. It's a 5-floor mosque nestled into a narrow space on E. 55th Street. You could easily pass it by without noticing, as it's sandwiched between a parking garage and restaurants. The sign above the doors is plain and unobtrusive, without any awnings or artwork.

I entered and walked down a long green and white-tiled hallway, while a speaker system sent out a soothing adhan, the Muslim prayer song. Instantly I felt transported off the windy Manhattan streets into something far warmer.

Sheikh Ahmed, a tall dark-haired Egyptian with a wide smile and well-groomed beard, told me that the Ramadan fast is a way for Muslims to strengthen their self-discipline and resolve against temptation and deprivation. People can get used to having easy access to food, water and other needs, he told me, but they must be prepared in case they lose these provisions.

He illustrated his point with a parable: a wealthy prince decides he wants to go for a hunt in the wild. However, he has absolutely no previous experience roughing it and fending for himself. So he makes sure to equip Land Rovers with food and water and an ambulance with supplies should he find himself suffering at all.

The prince goes out into the desert on his own for the hunt, but soon after he enters the wilderness, a sandstorm comes along and he loses contact with all his support vehicles. Soon he is all alone in the wild, with no food, water or support. If he has had no training for this moment, how is he to cope? In that moment, he must rely on his own discipline and faith, which is what Ramadan is meant to strengthen.

I asked about whether Ramadan is more difficult here in the States than in Muslim countries, since Muslims will encounter many here who are not taking part in their fast. The imam suggested that on the contrary, the sight of others not taking part in the fast could strengthen a Muslim's resolve. "It reminds you of the uniqueness of what you're doing," he said, "that you are doing something special for Allah."

After our discussion , the imam invited me to join him and his colleagues for Iftar, the breaking of the fast after sundown. First an appetizer of dates and milk, and then a filling dinner of cubed beef, rice pilaf and salad, with mango nectar. Certainly a nice way to end the Saturday fast, but I wonder about those people who again are going between two different jobs or hardly have time to prepare such a meal. How do they make sure they can sustain themselves through the month?