According to Islamic teaching, fasting through daylight hours during the month of Ramadan, which ends tonight, brings Muslims closer to God.
“Fasting enables me to concentrate spiritually,” said Muhammad Younus, of Lititz, a medical doctor who works as a drug safety epidemiologist for Pfizer. “When you give up things you like, you find self-discovery, reflection and self-control.”
“It purifies you,” said Afsheen Karim, who is a family medicine doctor in Lancaster and the wife of Younus. “It satisfies you after you fast (during daylight) for a whole month.”
During Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims abstain from food and water for about 15 hours each day, from 4:30 a.m. until just after sunset. The holiday celebrates the time when God gave the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims try to read the entire sacred text during the month, in addition to fasting and refraining from gossip and “frivolous activities.”
Fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, along with professing faith in one God and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger; praying; donating to charity; and visiting Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at least once during a lifetime.
Eid al-Fitr, which starts Thursday, celebrates the beginning of the new month with family feasts, colorful clothes and celebrations.
The special celebratory dessert that Karim, Sameera Syed and other Muslim families will make Thursday combines nuts, milk, fine vermicelli and sometimes dates into a luscious, sugary mixture. But this rich pudding dish, called sheer khurma, still may taste a little sour, as it marks the end of Ramadan. Many Muslims say they feel some despair leaving this time of prayer and reflection behind.
“It’s a feeling of sadness when the month is ending,” said Vinithia Moopen, a pediatrician with WellSpan Health in Lititz. “We are filling our souls, not our stomachs.”
“The day actually goes very fast,” said Shakeel Amanullah, a partner at Pulmonary Associates of Lancaster and Moopen’s husband. “I don’t feel bogged down. I feel very light.”
“God is saying, ‘If you fast for my sake, I will reward you.’ When you fast, you establish and strengthen bonds with God,” said Lititz engineer Mukaram Syed, who is Sameera Syed’s husband. “We look forward to this month.”
Logistics of fasting
Still, how can someone concentrate while not eating or drinking most of the day?
How can a surgeon operate on a patient?
How can a student take tests?
The answer seems to be spiritual fortitude, plus a slightly rearranged schedule.
Moopen said many people don’t know when she’s not eating during the day. “My office staff doesn’t know I’m fasting.”
People sometimes work through the day without breaks or lunch, so co-workers may not realize that some may be fasting for Ramadan.
“It’s not difficult. My whole day of fasting doesn’t affect my productivity,” Younus said, noting that he tries to focus on harder tasks after breakfast.
“It’s not a struggle,” said Sameera Syed, medical director of Obstetrics and Gynecology of Lancaster. She starts seeing patients in the hospital at 7 a.m. and usually finishes around 3 p.m.
Her daughter, Nawal Syed, will graduate this year from Manheim Township High School.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” the 17-year-old said. “I feel less energized.”
The high school senior, however, cherishes fasting.
“I’m always busy with school and friends,” Nawal said. “Fasting lets me reignite my religious connection.”
Her grades haven’t suffered, Nawal’s mother noted. She will start a combined bachelor’s and MD program at Drexel University in Philadelphia this fall.
Nawal leaves for school by 7 a.m., so getting up earlier for breakfast before sunrise only changes her schedule a little. She and other Muslims say they may grab a short nap after breakfast and prayers on weekdays, before work or school. On weekends, many wake up early to eat and then go back to sleep. Others say they bring work home and focus after the evening meal.
“You make a little effort,” Younus said. “With the excitement of Ramadan, not eating becomes routine.”
Afternoon coffee or tea frequently popped up during conversations of what practitioners missed most during the month.
“I have missed coffee,” Mukaram Syed said.
The craving, however, seemed to disappear after a few days.
Ramadan also focuses on charity.
“We believe that what we have is a gift from God, and we should share that with those in need,” Moopen said. “With COVID, there are a lot of people in the community struggling.”
She and Amanullah earmark a percentage of their income for donations. Amanullah also serves on the board of trustees at The Islamic Community Center of Lancaster.
“By fasting, you realize the blessings of God and appreciate people who don’t have anything,” he said.
The Islamic Community Center of Lancaster, which shares space with the Lancaster Moravian Church, provided Friday and Saturday night meals for families to break their daily fasts. The organization brought in dinners from Muslim-owned businesses, and area residents, or anyone who was hungry, could come to the parking lot across from the mosque to pick up boxes of kabobs, samosas or shawarma. The center also has an open-door policy to anyone interested. During Ramadan, though, the mosque limits itself to worshippers.
The pandemic has altered Ramadan prayers and celebrations. No services or meals took place last year because the center was closed when the holiday started April 23. This year, the mosque staggers prayer times to reduce capacity and allows no food inside, said Mukaram Syed, another board member.
“We have water,” he said. “It’s the only time masks come off.”
The congregation tries to gather Friday afternoons for prayers, a sermon and a meeting. The mosque relies on lay members and has no paid staff. However, leaders have invited a noted Muslim scholar to lead prayers Thursday.
Not every Muslim is required to fast. Young children and people with medical conditions or other extenuating circumstances are excused, Amanullah said.
Yet some who don’t fast wish they could. Mukaram Syed first tried fasting when he was 7. He started fasting on weekends but wanted to abstain from eating and drinking during the week, too.
“It was so cool,” he recalled.
Karim and Younus’ younger son, 7, tried fasting for the first time this year, not eating on one day of a weekend. Their older son, 9, refrained from eating and drinking during weekends.
“I’m not worried about them,” said Karim, the family doctor. “They want to do it.”