Muslims in Orange County and worldwide are about to go on a 30-day fast, during which they’ll abstain from food, drink or water between sunrise and sunset for the holy month of Ramadan.

The month will start tonight and the first day of fasting will begin Saturday.

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.

This will mark the third time Muslims have embarked on the fast since COVID-19 cases were first reported in Orange County and the second one since vaccination efforts first started to roll out in the county.

And now with roughly 75% of Orange County’s 3.2 million residents fully vaccinated, according to the OC Health Care Agency, there is hope that Ramadan this year may be celebrated in a way more similar to how it was celebrated before the pandemic – as a community.

“We’re really thankful to God that the pandemic situation is better. It’s not completely gone, but it is better,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, the director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, a mosque in Garden Grove and one of largest Muslim community centers in Southern California.

“People are really happy that they can come back to the masjid (mosque), pray in the evening, break the fast together and have an atmosphere of celebration as we used to have for the month of Ramadan, so we’re looking forward to that,” he said.

[Read: Orange County Muslims to Begin Fasting for Their Second Ramadan During Coronavirus Pandemic]

Lyba Batla, president of the Muslim Student Association at Cal State Fullerton, said there is a huge emphasis on community in Islam, especially during Ramadan.

“Because of COVID the past two years, I’ve been stuck at home for Ramadan not being able to go for taraweeh (optional nightly prayers held at the mosque during Ramadan) or iftars (the meal eaten to break one’s fast at sunset during Ramadan) at the mosque or making food boxes. This is the first year since I want to say … that we’ve been able to kind of prepare normally,” she said.

Batla said Muslim students have been helping prepare Ramadan food boxes for ICNA Relief to give out to people in need.

“Doing things like that for the community and getting together with the community, it feels so much better than it did the past two years because we were so secluded,” she said.

The Importance of Ramadan and Fasting

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five major beliefs of the Islamic religion known as the pillars of Islam. Every healthy Muslim old enough and able to do so must abstain from eating and drinking between sunset and sunrise.

People who are sick, traveling or women on their period may make up the days they don’t fast anytime before the next Ramadan.

Those who are chronically sick or are old and unable to make up missed days may donate some money for each day they don’t fast which will be used to feed someone in need, according to the Quran (2:184).

Kids can start fasting around the age of 6 and 7, although they do not have to fast every day of the month, according to the Islamic Society of Orange County’s website.

A man and his son kneel in the outside prayer area of the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda on April 9, 2021 waiting for the Friday sermon as others pray around them. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

“They fast on some days and then skip a few days, and then fast again. This way they become used to fasting. Like salat (prayer), fasting is obligatory on them when they reach the age of puberty, around the ages of 13 or 14,” the website states.

Siddiqi said fasting is a tradition that goes back centuries, even before the time of the prophet Muhammad, and that many lessons are learned from fasting including discipline, a greater awareness of God, gratitude and empathy for people less fortunate.

“Fasting is a very meaningful thing,” he said. “We appreciate many gifts that we have from God. Sometimes we take those gifts for granted – food and drink and all the comforts of life that we have but when we go through the experience of fasting, we realize how important they are.”

Charity and Giving Back

Ramadan is also about giving back.

Throughout the month, Muslims like Abed Nahhas, a Placentia resident, will be looking to do acts of charity for people less fortunate than themselves.

“One of the wisdoms, or reasons that we fast, is because it allows us to feel and remember the people who are less fortunate than us. And so part of feeling and remembering the people that are less fortunate than us is also helping them,” he said.

For the past couple of Ramadans, Nahhas had been helping raise money to feed people in Lebanon – many of whom are Syrian refugees.

His colleagues’ and his efforts have started to expand toward the general Lebanese population over there as well at a time when it is desperately needed.

“You have to keep in mind that right now, there’s no electricity in Lebanon, there’s no water in Lebanon, there’s no heating in Lebanon,” Nahhas said. “There’s food shortages all over. There’s produce shortages and inflation and incredibly high prices, political turmoil.”

The project started off after Nahhas saw a video of his friend in Lebanon giving food to people in need. So he decided to send his friend money to help the cause and started to see if other people would help too.

“One of those people I asked actually started asking other people, and it kind of snowballed into the first year fundraiser. I think we raised about $3,000, in the first year,” Nahhas said.

The next year the effort to help raise money started to get support from people in other places internationally, raising about $7,000 in the U.S. and $8,000 in Europe, according to Nahhas.

 “All that money went to Lebanon and we sent out 20,000 ready made meals,” he said.

This year, Nahhas plans to go in person to Lebanon to help out on the ground and the organizers will also be handing out groceries as well as ready to eat meals.

He said they would stop collecting donations around the last week of April and Ramadan and if any money is leftover from the fundraiser, it will be used to buy toys and clothes for the children in the Syrian refugee camps.

Nahhas encourages people not only to donate but also for people to spread the word about the Go Fund Me page which will help get them more donations and, in turn, feed more people.

Charity groups here have also given out food during Ramadan to people in need.

Ahmed Almukhtar, Uplift Charity’s director of operations, and volunteers help put boxes of food into the trunk of cars at a food pantry in 2020.

Iftars and Taraweeh Prayers: Ramadan in OC

Over the past two years, many Muslims avoided community gatherings and hosting iftars – a typical aspect of the month where families, and friends whether Muslim or not, come together to break their fast at the end of the day – in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. 

A lot of households and individual families celebrated together instead.

“It was low key,” Siddiqi said about the past two Ramadans. “We were thankful that we were doing it with our family. Now we’ll be doing it – family and community together.”

Siddiqi said many of the activities the Islamic Society of Orange County used to host during Ramadan but were halted due to the pandemic, like daily iftars where people can break their fast together after the sun sets, will be back this year.

He said the mosque still recommends and requires people to wear a mask inside and that people can still pray outside if they feel more comfortable that way.

Masks are also required at the Islamic Center of Fullerton, the Islamic Center of Santa Ana and the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda.

Iftars will also be held by those three mosques during the month, where community members can break their fast together and pray.

During the pandemic, iftars were held drive-thru style at the Yorba Linda mosque with boxed food given out, but this year the dinners will be buffet style and held outside at the mosque on Saturdays.

Typically during Ramadan, mosques hold daily taraweeh prayers at night for people to come and worship as a community after breaking their fast.

In 2020, those prayers were stopped at many mosques because of the pandemic.

In 2021, Mosques started hosting taraweeh prayers again with safety protocols in place.

This year, mosques will hold the nightly prayers again, making a comeback at Islamic Center of Fullerton after a two-year hiatus.

In fact, this will be the first time in two years that congregants at the Fullerton mosque will be able to pray indoors during Ramadan.

“That’s the biggest difference,” said Mohammad Raghib, the president of the mosque. “Last year, we were not able to host because of the pandemic and the year before also we requested our congregation to do it at home.”

The Fullerton’s Islamic Centers is one of the smaller mosques in Orange County and was founded by a small group of Vietnamese Muslims families – many who were immigrants.

In Yorba Linda and Santa Ana, the local mosques will also be hosting taraweeh prayers.

Prayers in general will be held inside and outside the Yorba Linda and Santa Ana mosques.

He added that the mosque will make changes to its protocols if COVID starts to intensify again.

More Than Just Fasting: Community and Spirituality

Ramadan is also about spirituality and how you treat others as well as an opportunity to move away from negativity and vices in life.

“If you don’t control your anger and your temper or your attitude, then Allah doesn’t need you to abstain from food and drink,” said Imam Ghazaly Salim, who leads prayers at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana – a mosque started by OC’s Muslim Cham community. “We try to improve every year.”

It is also about building better habits.

“You’re trying to do all these things to be a better person and hopefully build a habit out of it during this time. You’re doing this for 30 days so the hope is that you can carry this as far as you can into the rest of the year,” said Owaiz Dadabhoy, president of the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda.

Ramadan is also a time for self-reflection, self-improvement and worship.

“It’s very much focusing on my mental health, my physical health, my spiritual health and really sitting down and making sure that I am at a place where I want to be religiously,” Batla said.

Men pray at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove one week before the holy month of Ramadan. Credit: VALERIE CHAN, Voice of OC

Ramadan commemorates the month God sent down the Quran for the guidance of humanity.

During this time, Muslims will study and read the Quran, the religious text of the Islamic faith, in its entirety. 

The Islamic Center of Fullerton will be holding an event at the Fullerton Community on April 25 where members of the mosque plan to finish reading the Quran and families can come together as a community and eat after the fast.

In Yorba Linda, the mosque will host a Quran competition where people memorize part of the book, a surah (chapter) and recite it.

The people with the best form will win a cash prize.

Dadabhoy said people being able to engage in the nightly taraweeh prayers, the iftars and the different events is an important part of Ramadan that brings the community together and strengthens the Muslim community’s bond.

“If you’re connected, then you’re going to end up being a stronger community because you will try to take care of the community, you’ll contribute to the community and that’s a big part of it,” he said.

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

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