Ramadan draws to a close at sunset Wednesday, leaving Muslims with a renewed sense of their faith after a month of fasting, introspection and prayer.
Taking place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The public best knows it as the time when the faithful fast, not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset.
“People think of it as suffering,” said Juwairyah Syed, 33. “They don’t think it makes any sense. But there’s a deeper meaning. I call it a spiritual boot camp.”
Syed, who has a doctorate in genetics from Johns Hopkins University, is the director of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics program at Tigard’s Muslim Educational Trust. While based in Tigard, MET is a spiritual home, drawing people from across the metropolitan area. MET features a school, mosque and community center as well as a community outreach program to connect with people and organizations of other faiths.
Syed said uninformed people think of Ramadan as if it was a kind of intermittent fasting program, often associated with those who want to lose weight. The true meaning is a chance for the faithful to explore the inner soul, human nature and how people are connected. That, she said, means practicing patience, controlling anger and offering understanding and empathy, all things that can be more difficult than not eating or drinking.
The upheaval from COVID-19, with closures, isolation and extreme social distancing, has changed the Ramadan experience during the past two years. Traditionally, the faithful gather at MET at sunset for nightly prayers during Ramadan and bring food to share with others when the fast is broken.
“Last year I fasted and prayed at home by myself,” said Syed. “I missed the community, but I was able to discover myself as an individual. This year is better, but we still have to be socially distanced.”
Jahed Sukhun, the 60-year-old chief operating officer at MET, said participating in Ramadan when he was a child was difficult.
“I complained,” he said. “My father would tell me to be patient.”
As he grew older, fasting and contemplating during Ramadan, he said, taught him to deal with life from within, making him a better person. But he is realistic.
“Do my wife and I have disagreements during Ramadan?” he asked. “Of course. That is human nature. What Ramadan does is teach courage and patience. I am building myself, one brick at a time.”
The month of Ramadan, he said, is the human equivalent of updating of the technology that makes a smartphone work efficiently.
“We all need a spiritual update,” he said. “I should always have good virtues, always have patience and always thankful to God. But I am human. I need Ramadan.”
Social distancing in the era of COVID-19 has been a test, making him appreciate what was lost, and what he hopes will return as the pandemic slowly ends.
“We used to have 400 people come here each night to break the fast,” he said. “The last two years have been very hard. Nothing last year, and now only in small groups, behind masks and sitting apart. I miss the hugs, kisses and arms around my friends.”
Jawad Kahn, 44, the chief programing officer at MET, has practiced fasting since he was 7.
“Faith is not static,” he said. “Faith is like the tides. It goes in and goes out. In Ramadan, it swells. Humans have the choice to obey or disobey God. Fasting is the affirmation of my faith. I don’t have to complete it. That makes it deeply personal. It is my relationship and connection with God.”
Fasting, Kahn said, makes him realizes all the “small things” that weigh him down during the day.
“In regular life,” he said, “every day does not bring a sense of accomplishment. You go through the motions. During Ramadan you feel accomplished at sunset when you break the fast.”
Mornings, however, is when Kahn said he felt the most spiritual.
“It is still outside,” he said. “It is a time of solitude. When you are alone with your thoughts, you are closest to yourself. Your spirit reveals itself and you see how much strength you have.”
Zikria Haqiqi, 28, creative coordinator at MET said he “loves food,” which presents a problem during Ramadan.
“I can go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator and sneak something to eat,” he said. “No one is checking up on me. No one would ever know.”
While he does not eat, Haqiqi said that during Ramadan he does feed his soul.
“Ramadan is a reset in a life,” he said. “Some would say that it is hypocritical for people to stop doing things in their lives for one month, when they will go right back to it when Ramadan ends.”
He sees it differently.
“For some people Ramadan might their chance to change,” he said. “Perhaps that is what they need. A time of inspiration to change their lives for good.”