Across the world and here in Orange County, Muslims that are able to are about to embark on a 30-day fast from sunrise to sunset without food, drink and water 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.
But for Muslims, Ramadan is more than just abstaining from eating and drinking.
It is also about worshiping God, helping others and a time for self reflection and self-improvement.
“Ramadan is a season of spiritual rejuvenation,” said Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Greater Los Angeles, in a phone interview.
“It allows us to focus on maybe putting aside our bodily needs when we’re fasting, so we get to focus on the spiritual needs of the body.”
This year Ramadan is expected to take place from the evening of March 22 to the evening of April 20.
And each year newly practicing Muslims and converts engage in their first or second Ramadan.
Some of them are Orange County residents. Others commute to attend mosques in OC for the support programs.
Gabriella Ritchie, a 25-year-old Anaheim resident, is one of those Muslims who will celebrate Ramadan for the first time.
“I’m really excited to just use this time to get closer to Allah (God) and to just learn more about Islam and really dive into the Quran,” she said in a phone interview.
“I want to take full advantage of the experience and I am a bit nervous since it’ll be my first time but I’m mostly excited.”
Ritchie, who is part Cuban, grew up in New York in a half Catholic-half Jewish household and came to California to study at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. She later went to Vanguard University in Costa Mesa.
She said she became interested in Islam while living in the Bronx near Little Yemen – home to a large Muslim community.
Ritchie said the news that she wanted to become a Muslim came as a shock to her family.
“My mother was concerned at first,” she said. “But she has been more and more supportive.”
Ritchie took her Shahada, a declaration of faith in Islam that is among the five pillars of the religion, in February at the Islamic Society of Orange County mosque in Garden Grove. She now attends a new Muslim support group at the Islamic Center of Irvine mosque.
“I just felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Over a year ago, I knew I was going to become Muslim so I said the shahada to myself, but I didn’t truly understand the weight of what I was saying until I learned about it at the Irvine masjid (mosque),” Ritchie said.
This Ramadan she is excited to be around the Muslim community and learn more about Islam.
“Islam is about accountability and action and I love the element of prayer. It just makes me feel so much more closer and connected to God,” Ritchie said.
Joseph Vega, a 35-year-old father of eight and Rancho Santa Margarita resident, will be fasting for his second Ramadan.
Vega, who describes himself as Native American and Spanish, grew up moving around Orange County from relative to relative after his father passed away and his mother left. He grew up Catholic but as he became older he practiced what he called Spirituality.
“Islam really wasn’t any different as far as that one almighty Creator and treating everything was love and respect,” Vega said in a phone interview.
He said he made his declaration of faith at the end of 2021 at the Orange County Islamic Foundation mosque in Mission Viejo.
He said he has fasted intermittently except for water, tea and coffee for six months every year for the last 15 years.
“I was already prepared with what came with fasting. But I wasn’t really prepared, or even expected the humbleness that came after fasting by not having any food or water throughout the day from sunup to sundown,” he said about his first Ramadan last year.
“Fasting that long feels as if it starved whatever negativity or whatever bad was growing inside me.”
Angel & Veronica Torres
Angel and Veronica Torres, a married couple who live in Lakewood and recently became Muslim, commute to the Islamic Institute of Orange County mosque in Anaheim to be a part of the community here.
Angel said he came across Islam through YouTube videos which sparked his curiosity and made him want to look into the Quran – the holy book for Muslims.
“We both come from Catholic backgrounds. I didn’t realize that the Bible and the Quran had so many similarities. I had no idea what Islam was at the time,” he said.
Shortly after, Angel declared his faith at the Santa Monica pier after hearing a YouTuber pray there in January.
Weeks after, Veronica also declared her faith.
“I kind of just needed my time to look more into it. I wasn’t sure. I grew up more religious than Angel did,” she said.
This will be their first Ramadan.
“We’re definitely excited for the spiritual aspect of it. I know it’s a time to draw us closer to God and give more charity,” Angel said.
Veronica, who is pregnant, will not be able to fast but she hopes the month will help her become a better person and added her favorite aspect about the religion is how close you become to God.
“I was never used to praying so much throughout the day,” she said. “It’s something that I really like.”
Like the Torres, Yukiko Dryer, a mother who resides in Carson, commutes to the Islamic Institute of Orange County for the support and programs available for new Muslims.
She grew up Christian in Osaka, Japan – a country that has traditionally had a Buddhist and Shinto culture and was once closed off from the rest of the world for over 200 years.
“I didn’t know anything about Muslims,” Dryer said. “There was no mosque. I think that that’s growing in Japan now. But back then I had actually never heard of Islam.”
Dryer, a nurse who worked during the height of the pandemic, declared her faith at her hospital days before Ramadan last year.
“The only reason I decided to take shahada when I did was because I wanted to experience Ramadan as a Muslim,” she said. “I’m pretty stubborn so when I set my mind to it I’m going to do it and it was also a great opportunity for me to feel closer to God.”
This time she hopes to experience the month in community.
Dryer said her decision to convert has led to some people telling her she is going back in time.
“I did have a little difficulty. I don’t take it personally. But the religion is personal to me. So those things really made me very sad,” she said.
Resources For New Muslims
While there is no reliable data on how many people convert to Islam in Orange County, Ayloush said the religion is growing in Southern California and there is a history of people converting to Islam in the U.S.
He said one of the challenges for new Muslims during Ramadan is that it can be a lonely month especially if they haven’t integrated into the community or if their family isn’t accepting of their change.
“That’s why many mosques actually host iftars – the breaking of the fast dinner at the mosque themselves,” Ayloush said. “You get to pray together and eat together.”
Ayloush, whose wife converted to Islam, said both the Islamic Institute of OC and the Islamic Center of Irvine offer support and programs for new Muslims.
The department offers weekly classes on Islam on Friday and Sunday. There are also volunteers who can help mentor new Muslims.
Zaheen’s advice for new Muslims is to thank God for being able to fast as well as practice in advance.
“So that when Ramadan starts the body’s already kind of used to it, as opposed to just starting fasting day one of Ramadan, it will be a little bit more challenging,” he said.
Zaheen also said that they should lean on the community for support and wake up and eat before sunrise during the month.
His mosque will host a “Fast With a Muslim” event on April 2 at 5:45 p.m. for non-Muslims to learn about Islam and Ramadan.
Zaheen encourages attendees to fast that day.
“We conclude with, of course, the prayer that they can observe and then the Iftar dinner and then they join us to eat,” he said.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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