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Ramadan: Time of reflection, prayer, fasting

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO Muslims around the world are observing Ramadan. They do not eat or drink from sunup to sundown. The foods pictured above would be commonly served in the evening meal.

Ramadan began this week. Don't know much about it? Neither did I, but I felt it was time to learn about the Islamic month of fasting. Searches on the Internet brought me to the webpage of Masjed As-Saber Islamic Center in Portland and my request for more information prompted a reply from Ahmed Zikri.

Ahmed, who is the outreach coordinator for Masjed As-Saber, and his wife, Khadijah Peterson, were very willing to sit down with me and share information about their religion. Khadijah converted from the Lutheran faith in 2009; this is her second year fasting during Ramadan.

From my conversation with Ahmed and Khadijah and information they supplied from Why Islam? (www.whyislam.org), I pass along this information.

The Arabic word, 'Islam,' means voluntary surrender to the will of Allah and obedience to His commands. 'Allah' is the Arabic word that Muslims use for God. A person who freely and consciously accepts the Islamic way of life and sincerely practices it is called a Muslim.

Muslims believe that their sole purpose in life is the worship of Allah alone, according to His instructions, as revealed in the Holy Qur'an, and through the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed.

The Oneness of God is the most important Islamic belief; everything in existence originates from the one and only Creator. Allah is the sole source of power and authority and therefore is entitled to worship and obedience from mankind. There is no scope of partnership with the Creator, he has no son or daughter. Human beings, like the rest of creation, are his subjects.

The Muslims' Allah is the same entity as the Christian and Jewish God.

Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet, or messenger, of Allah; they do not regard him as the Son of God. They believe Jesus taught the same message that was taught by other messengers of God; from Adam, on through Noah, Abraham, Moses and ending with the mission of God's last Guidepost to Humanity, Muhammad, whose coming was foretold by Jesus himself.

There are Five Pillars of Islamic faith, which when acted upon correctly and sincerely transforms a Muslim's life into one that is in harmony with nature and conforms with the will of the Creator.

The first of the Five Pillars is Shahadah, 'La ilaha illal lahu Muhammadur rasulul lah,' which translates to 'There is no god except Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.' This declaration is the basis of all actions in Islam, and the other basic duties follow this affirmation.

Salah, or compulsory prayer, is offered five times a day and it is these prayers that keep a believer in touch with Allah. The Salah develops in the believer the self-discipline, steadfastness and obedience to the truth, which lead one to be patient, honest and truthful in the affairs of their lives.

Zakah is the compulsory payment from the Muslim's annual wages. It can only be spent to help the poor, the needy and oppressed. This ensures an equitable society where everyone has a right to contribute and share.

Sawm is the annual obligatory fasting during each day of the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. One must refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn to sunset. Sawm develops a believer's moral and spiritual standard and keeps them away from selfishness, greed, extravagance and other vices. Sawm is an annual training program that increases a Muslim's determination to fulfill their obligation to Allah.

Hajj is an annual event, obligatory on those Muslims who can afford to undertake it, at least once in their lifetime. It is a pilgrimage to the 'House of Allah,' in Mecca, Saudia Arabia, in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. Hajj symbolizes the unity of humankind. Muslims of every race and nationality assemble together in equality and fraternity to worship Allah.

The Qur'an is the final book of guidance from Allah, revealed to Prophet Muham-mad through the angel Gabriel. Ahmed told me that the Qur'an is an authenticated narration of God's words as passed down from Muhammad through the generations. The teachings were revealed to Muhammad over a 23-year period and then transcribed by Bukhari, the first imam or scholarly spiritual leader.

The Hadith is a collection of sayings, actions and silent approvals of Prophet Muhhamed. It explains the Qur'an and how to practice it. The Prophet's companions recorded the Hadith meticulously.

Marriage is the basis of family life in Islam. It is a solemn and simple contract between a man and woman. Islam does not allow the free mixing of men and women nor does it allow sex before marriage. Extra-marital sex is severely punished.

According to Why Islam, husbands and wives are equal partners of the family and play their part in their respective fields.

The rights and responsibilities of women are equal to those of men but they are not necessarily identical.

Women have as much right to education as men do.

Women also have the right to accept or reject marriage proposals, and her consent is a prerequisite to the validity of the marriage contract. A marriage is based on mutual peace, love and compassion.

Again, according to information found on www.whyislam.org, American Muslim women today are rediscovering themselves by wearing a hijab, a headcovering. Wearing the hijab is an act of obedience to God. They are not forced to wear hijab; it is a personal and independent decision, coming from appreciating the wisdom underlying Allah's command and a sincere wish to please him. Islam is a religion of moderation and of balance between extremes and wearing modest clothing and hijab are precautions to avoid social violations, not as a means of keeping the illicit desires of men in check.

Ramadan occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It begins with the sighting of the new moon and all physically mature and healthy Muslims are obliged to fast for the complete month.

Fasting is done as an act of deep personal worship and obedience to Allah. Between dawn and sunset, Muslims abstain from all food, drink and any kind of sexual contact. Fasting redirects the heart away from worldly activities and toward the remembrance of Allah.

Besides the many physical benefits of fasting, such as rejuvenation, improved digestion and weight loss, fasting heightens one's spiritual awareness.

'Fasting gives you an appreciation for all that you have,' said Ahmed. 'It helps you figure out who you are and keeps you in your place.'

Khadijah said fasting helped her live a more purposeful life.

'We don't notice how much time we spend 'consuming,'' she said. '(Fasting) gives you time for self-reflection. Ordinarily you can get up and get a drink whenever you wish … but when you are fasting you get a new perspective. You realize the hardships others go through on a regular basis, and it makes you more likely to help.'

Ahmed and Khadijah start each day during Ramadan with suhoor, a light meal which often includes dates and protein of some sort. Suhoor is followed by fajr, the morning prayer.

At sunset, the fast is broken. It is common to eat more dates and pray before they sit down to a large dinner.

At the end of the month, again to be determined by the sighting of the new moon, a day of celebration known as Eid-ul-Fitr, or the festival of fast breaking, is held. Families wake early, put on new clothes and gather together for prayers and to thank Allah for giving them the opportunity to experience the blessed month of Ramadan.

The Eid celebration is not merely about feasting and socializing. There is a deep significance for those who truly observed the holy month with their fasting, abstaining from bad habits and striving hard to earn the pleasure of Allah. Muslims are left with a feeling of happiness and joy and a renewed energy to face the rest of the year with faith and determination.

Since Islam is practiced by people all over the world, there is not a 'traditional' list of foods that would be eaten at the Eid-ul-Fitr.

However, Khadijah shared a recipe she received from her mother-in-law in Egypt.

'I can assure its authenticity! Also, she made this dish for us when we were visting Egypt last year, and it is wonderful!'

Whether or not you celebrate Ramadan, try this recipe. It will give you an insight into the flavors favored by some of our Muslim friends.

Bon Appetit! Eat something wonderful!

Egyptian Macarona Bechamel

1 ½ pounds uncooked penne pasta

1 pound ground beef

1 onion, diced

2 tablespoons butter or oil

Salt and pepper

1 cup tomato sauce

For the béchamel:

4 ½ cups milk, warmed

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add salt and a drop of oil. Add the pasta and cook. Drain and set aside.

In another pot, heat 2 tablespoons butter or oil and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the ground beef. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until meat is browned. Once meat is browned, add the tomato sauce and simmer until the mixture becomes thick. Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

For the béchamel: Heat the milk to warm in the microwave or on stovetop. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a medium size pot. Add immediately 3 tablespoons of flour. Cook until the flour absorbs the butter and the roux turns golden in color. Ladle the milk one ladle at a time and whisk it in the roux until it's smooth. Repeat this process until you finish the milk. You want the béchamel to be the consistency of thick but pourable cream.

To assemble: In a 9' x 13' glass pan. Add half of the cooked pasta. Spread the ground beef mix over it. Add the remaining pasta. Pour the béchamel over the top spreading with a spatula to cover all corners of the pan. Bake at 350°F. for 30 to 50 minutes or until the top is nice golden brown color (make sure to watch the color and take the dish out once it is golden brown).

Recipe courtesy of Ahmed's mother

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-635-8811 ext. 101 or by email at brandall@lakeoswegore

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