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Muslims in Orange County and across the globe are once again about to embark on roughly 30 days of fasting, worship, helping others, reflection and self-improvement for the holy month of Ramadan.

What is Ramadan?

Muslims believe Ramadan is the month in which the first verses of the Quran, Islam’s religious doctrate, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad well over 1,000 years ago. The first day of fasting depends on the sighting of the new moon and starts on a different day each year because the Islamic calendar is lunar based.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith which are the core beliefs of the religion. During this time, every healthy adult able to do so must go without food and drink from sunrise to sunset.

And yes, that includes water. 

“You kind of deprive yourself of food and water in the day and that pays off in the night. It feels like you’re closer to God and that your soul is being purified,” said Atef Mahgoub, Islamic Center of Irvine’s religious director.

Abed Nahhas, a Cal State Fullerton student and Irvine resident, said there are many wisdoms behind fasting.

“It helps us feel and have empathy for less fortunate people who don’t always have food or drink,” he said. “People are more motivated usually to donate to causes that are related to helping poor people.” 

Ramadan is also about revitalizing one’s spirituality and getting closer to God through prayer, charitable actions as well as studying the Quran.

“It is a fresh start and a reminder that there are things that are more important than worldly possessions, such as helping others,” said Hanin Sharif, a Garden Grove resident.

“I encourage people to try fasting for a day whether they’re Muslim or not, it’s a good experience.”

This is the second Ramadan during the coronavirus pandemic for not only Sharif but Muslims all over the world and because of the virus, the month is being observed differently than it usually is.

“It was more of a test of discipline because usually I wouldn’t do it on my own. I missed the feeling of the mosque where other people are doing the same thing as me,” she said. 

How Are Muslims in OC Planning to Observe Ramadan This Year?

Typically during Ramadan, mosques hold Taraweeh prayers at night for people to come and worship as a community after breaking their fast. Last year, the virus halted these types of prayers for many mosques.

Terms You May Not Recognize

Taraweeh: Recommended optional nightly prayers held at the mosque during Ramadan. Some in the pandemic are praying it from home.

Iftar: The meal eaten to break one’s fast at sunset during Ramadan. Also refers to gathering in which a group of people will break their fast together. Most people will break their fast with dates before eating the meal.

This year the optional nightly prayers are back with safety protocols in place like social distancing.

Mahgoub said the Irvine mosque will offer shortened Taraweeh prayers with a limited attendance.

Islamic Center of Yorba Linda will also host these prayers.

“Muslims in Southern California are definitely excited that we can do it this year,” said Owaiz Dadabhoy, president of the Yorba Linda mosque.

For a while during the pandemic, mosques, like other houses of worship, were closed, stopping Muslims from gathering for Friday prayers. At other points, mosques were offering outdoor services with people praying socially distanced.

“Those things have changed over the last couple of months. We have opened it up again,” Dadabhoy said. “People just seem really, really excited to come back to the mosque.”

Mosques have recently started holding prayers inside as well, with social distancing still in place.

At the Yorba Linda mosque, people are bringing their own mats to pray in a tile room because it is easier to disinfect than the designated carpeted prayer area. People can also pray outside and must register to come to Friday prayer.

Some mosques will also be holding virtual services.

Another aspect of the holy month is Iftar meals where family and friends – not necessarily Muslims – break their fast together and connect with one another. The pandemic stopped a lot of those gatherings from happening last year.

Even mosques would host Iftars for the community. 

“We served Iftar almost every night. There were years where we had it every other day. There were years when we had it only on the weekend but the majority of time we had it actually almost every night,” Maghoub said.

He added that the Irvine center won’t be having food at all this year.

Some Muslims would bring their own food to share and end their fast with at the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda. They would also have suhoor breakfast buffets at the mosque right before the fajr sunrise prayer that marks the beginning of the fast.

Last Ramadan, the Islamic Center of Anaheim on Brookhurst however was offering such services.

“We were one of the few that really did not change our program last. We were doing Taraweeh, we were doing Iftars too and we did take care of social distancing,” said Hani Khairullah, executive director of the mosque.

“This year we’re doing the same.”

Feeding the Hungry, Feeding the Soul

While the pandemic has changed some Ramadan tradition, it hasn’t changed many of the core aspects.

“A lot of people during Ramadan work on self-reflection, they work on self-improvement, from a religious point of view they focus on doing more acts of worship to Allah,” Nahhas said. “These are all things that people can still focus on.”

“We don’t have to be around others to improve ourselves.”

Nahhas helped raise money for his friend’s project to feed people in Lebanon this Ramadan.

“Lebanon is a country that has faced economic struggle for years mainly due to a very corrupt government,” he said. 

Nahhas said the explosion that occurred last year at the port in Beirut devastated a small country that is dependent on imports and was already experiencing regular power outages.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity. There’s a lot of financial insecurity. There’s crazy inflation due to the situation – before the explosion and after the explosion,” he said.

In Orange County, local Muslim groups are also working to feed people here during Ramadan too.

One such group is Uplift Charity, who on April 10 assembled 2,400 food boxes at the Al-Ansar Mosque in Anaheim and distributed food to people all over Southern California.

Ahmed Almukhtar, Uplift Charity’s director of operations, said the group has fed 3,150 families during the pandemic with around 450 families coming to their drive through pantries every month. They also deliver food to people who can’t make it to their distributions.

“It’s not only Ramadan,” Almukhtar said. “We are very committed to feeding the community – not only Muslims – our monthly food pantry is open to everybody.”

Dadabhoy, who is also president of Uplift Charity, said last week that some of those boxes will be going across the border to Rosarito and Tijuana.

 “There’s some Muslim communities down there that are in very, very bad shape financially.”

Lessons Learned During Ramadan

Khairullah said fasting during Ramadan makes people appreciate things they take for granted.

“You’re rich, you’re poor, you’re educated, you’re not educated – you have to fast and then you will feel hunger and it makes you appreciate all the blessings that you have around you,” he said.

Selina Saleh, a Cal State Fullerton student and Santa Ana resident, said the biggest takeaway is learning to be patient.

“Patience is key in Ramadan because we fast for almost 16 hours,” Saleh said.

“The main aspect of Ramadan for me is getting closer to my religion, to God and to my fellow Muslims as well,” she said. “This is a time where I get to reflect on myself and my faith. That’s probably my favorite part of Ramadan.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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