Local News

Tuesday, Aug 14 2012 08:00 PM

Ramadan traditions inspire empathy, discipline, local Muslims say

  1. 1 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Ten-year-old Hassan Shah, who is fasting during the month of Ramadan, prays before the breaking of fast.

    click to expand click to collapse
  2. 2 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    After a daily fast during the month of Ramadan, local Muslims break their dawn-to-sunset fast at the Islamic Center of San Joaquin Valley in Bakersfield.

    click to expand click to collapse
  3. 3 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Hasan Alaini heeds the call to evening prayer at the Islamic Center of San Joaquin Valley in Bakersfield.

    click to expand click to collapse
  4. 4 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Imam Nassr Gobah provides a lecture about Ramadan.

    click to expand click to collapse
  5. 5 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Hundreds join for prayer after breaking fast at the Islamic Center of San Joaquin Valley in Bakersfield.

    click to expand click to collapse
  6. 6 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    At the end of a special time of prayer during Ramadan that lasts late into the night, men part ways but will be back in a few hours for morning prayer at the Islamic Center of San Joaquin Valley and the start of a new day of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

    click to expand click to collapse
  7. 7 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Emad Meerza speaks to a boy participating in daily fasting during the month of Ramadan.

    click to expand click to collapse
  8. 8 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The Quran

    click to expand click to collapse
  9. 9 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A day of fasting ends in prayer during the month of Ramadan at the Islamic Center of San Joaquin Valley in Bakersfield.

    click to expand click to collapse
  10. 10 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    While some socialize, others pray and read the Quran before prayer and a teaching about Ramadan.

    click to expand click to collapse
  11. 11 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Young male children join the older men in the prayer at the Islamic Center of San Joaquin Valley. Females pray also but in a separate room.

    click to expand click to collapse
  12. 12 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Emad Meerza is president of the Islamic Shoura Council of Bakersfield.

    click to expand click to collapse
  13. 13 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Breaking fast during Ramadan.

    click to expand click to collapse
  14. 14 of 14

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Evening prayer after a day of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

    click to expand click to collapse
BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

It's another hot August afternoon in Bakersfield, but behind these high walls, the house of worship is cool, peaceful, welcoming.

The sun dips low in the west as congregants begin to stream through the doors, offering one another handshakes, smiles, greetings, brief embraces.

Most haven't eaten a morsel of food or swallowed a sip of cool water for nearly 14 hours.

But everyone knows a delicious meal of fresh fruit, rice, chicken kabob and salad is on its way and will be ready at about six minutes before 8 p.m., almost the instant the sun drops into the horizon.

Ten-year-old Zohaib Naeem feels the pangs of hunger, too. But he's determined to end the sawm, or daily fast, at the appointed time: sunset.

"I started last year and fasted some of the time," he says. "It's been actually really good. This year I've fasted all the days so far."

More than 2 billion Muslims worldwide, and an estimated 5,000 in Kern County, are observing the holy month of Ramadan, a time of daily fasting, self-restraint, spiritual reflection and cleansing of the soul. The fast begins at sunrise and ends at sunset -- and the faithful who attend the Islamic Center of San Joaquin Valley on Ming Avenue are no exception in their fidelity to the centuries-old ritual.

"It's something that God prescribed on our nation," says Emad Meerza, the amir, or elected community leader, of the Islamic Shoura Council of Bakersfield, the governing body that oversees the Ming Avenue mosque and the Al-Farooq Islamic Center in east Bakersfield.

The month of Ramadan lasts 29 or 30 days based on visual sightings of the crescent moon, Meerza notes. As such, Islam's holiest month slowly cycles through the calendar year, coming full-circle about every 33 years.

Ramadan 2012 is expected to end Aug. 18, but it could conclude a day earlier. It's a small but annual uncertainty that makes it a challenge to plan large celebrations or events marking the end of Ramadan.

Meerza notes that fasting is not a new religious practice in monotheism, but rather an obligation historically practiced by Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. It's just one of many parallels shared by the three faiths.

One of the goals of fasting, he explains, is to "take our lesser qualities and become masters of them."

When he fasts, he thinks about others around the world who are also fasting -- not by choice, but because of famine, war or political strife. Through our own suffering, he says, empathy is born.

"The only way to feel that is to feel a little bit of that pain," he says. "It's like you're training yourself to become a better person, a more noble person."

Of course, prayer is an important part of the process.

Inside the mosque, men and boys, their shoes removed, stand in long rows facing the front of the room where Nassr Gobah, the mosque's imam, or spiritual leader, is leading the evening prayer.

The women of the congregation are nowhere in evidence. They pray and break the fast in another section of the complex, separated from the men in accordance with tradition and local custom.

Boys in nylon athletic shorts or jeans and men dressed in slacks or more traditional arabic garb follow the imam's lead. They kneel with legs tucked beneath them, then touch their hands and foreheads to the carpeted floor in prostrate submission to Allah, the Arabic word meaning simply, "the God."

Gobah sings the prayer in a fine, clear voice, the notes sliding expressively between and beyond the measured intervals common to western music. The words in Arabic sound foreign to a visitor's ear, but the familiar word "amen" is repeated after each supplication.

When the prayer ends, some stand, some remain kneeling and others drift to the rear of the room in quiet contemplation.

A man who identifies himself only as Nabil brings up a topic on the minds of many religious minorities these days, the recent mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He wonders if the shooter mistook the Sikhs for Muslims, and shakes his head with the sobering knowledge that just one deranged or hateful man with a gun can destroy the lives of so many so quickly.

Soon they head into the parking lot where tables are set up and food is arriving.

There's a feeling in the air -- of joy, brotherhood, like any close family sharing food and faith together.

"Bissmillah," someone says. "In the name of God."

And they eat and rejoice that another day of fasting is over, another day, they believe, that has brought them closer to God.

After dinner, 9-year-old Raza Shah, a fourth-grader at Ronald Reagan School, talks about his experience learning to refrain from eating and drinking for a full day.

Children who have not reached puberty are not required to fast. Neither are pregnant or menstruating women, the sick, the elderly and travelers.

But younger children, with the permission of their parents, may try fasting.

"I missed a couple of days last year," Raza recalls. "This time I'm doing well."

Last year during Ramadan, school was in session, he remembers. Seeing everyone else eating at lunchtime was difficult.

"It's hard in school," Raza says. "We have to wait in the office during lunch."

But this year while fasting, he's noticed changes in his attitude and approach.

"It makes you more patient. You learn more discipline," he says. "I'm really feeling spiritual."

Have something to share? Comment on this story

Bakersfield.com Daily Deal!

Manuel's Casa De Mariscos

Daily Deal

$20 worth of Mexican food for $10

Value
$20
% Off
50%
You Save
$10
19 Bought
Buy Now! See more deals