A call to share

“Allahu akbar, allahu akbar.”

Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.

The Muslim call to prayer goes on to praise Allah as the only one “worthy of worship.” But its recitation last Thursday night at the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims served to include, rather than exclude. More than 200 Sacramentans of all beliefs gathered to share the breaking of the day’s 12-hour fast that Muslims practice during the 30 days of Ramadan.

“Muslims are encouraged to share the breaking of the fast,” said SALAM’s imam, Muhammed Abdul-Azeez. “If I am alone at home, and I have a date [each day’s fast traditionally is broken by eating a date and drinking milk], I must go outside to find someone to share it with to break the fast.”

Last week, SALAM extended the generosity of Ramadan to guests. At sundown, we each ate a date and drank water—while fasting, Muslims don’t eat or drink anything from dawn to dusk—and then were invited to observe prayers in the temporary building that serves as SALAM’s mosque.

During Ramadan, the evening meal, iftar, is offered to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. According to my tablemates, though, it’s not typically the sumptuous Mediterranean meal provided for this special interfaith gathering.

As we ate, Azeez explained the meaning of Ramadan, a time of worship and charity celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Ramadan means “scorching heat.” By giving up both food and drink—two difficult things to give up in the arid desert—Muslims develop patience and discipline. “When you can discipline yourself to give up what is permissible, it becomes easier to resist the impermissible,” he said.

It has other purposes. Fasting, Azeez explained, teaches empathy for the hungry and appreciation of God’s bounties. It’s also a demonstration of a person’s harmony and peace with God.

At the end of the evening, Suad Joseph, director of UC Davis’ program for Middle East/South Asia Studies, spoke with awe about her experiences of Ramadan in Egypt, where she taught for two years. “For the whole month, the entire country slows down, and things are not ordinary,” she said.

For Joseph, raised Catholic and of Lebanese descent, Egyptians’ everyday actions revealed the patience and sharing of Ramadan. Food was offered to rich and poor alike in tents placed everywhere around the city to break the fast at sundown. Even the notoriously reckless cabbies in Cairo gained patience: “At least they stopped aiming their cars directly at you.”

Through experiencing Egypt during Ramadan, Joseph was able to let her imagination extend to the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world: “I was amazed to think that at this moment, one-sixth of the world’s population was doing this. A sense of connection became possible,” she said. “You realize you’re not the only one, and you become aware of a life force.”