Friday, July 27, 2012

Shadia: The benefits of Ramadan are truly endless

Refraining from food and water all day during Ramadan is not that bad.

That's because we still get to eat twice — just before sunrise and again after sunset.

There's "iftar," which is the breaking-of-the-fast meal at sunset. But there's also "suhoor," which is a light meal Muslims eat before sunrise to be able to withstand not eating during the day.

Right now, the fast starts at about 4:20 a.m. in Southern California. The time varies, depending on location.

In Islam, suhoor fall into the category of "sunna," which means it's recommended. Sunna in Arabic means "the way of something." In general, when Muslims say sunna, it means following the way of the prophet.

When I was little, a guy used to walk our street with a drum and a little song in the middle of the night to wake up people for suhoor. That happens throughout the Arab world.

Most, but not all, Muslims get up for suhoor. Some people's work schedules don't allow them to get up in the middle of the night to eat and then go back to sleep before going to work.

Some just were never used to waking up and don't do it.

I'm one of those people.

My mom never gets up for suhoor and never woke me or my sister up when we were little, and so I don't do suhoor. Besides, I'm not really a breakfast kind of person.

If I happen to get up before sunrise, I usually drink water. If I'm already up late, like on many weekends during non-Ramadan time with my friends, then I'll eat something.

In the Middle East, restaurants are open throughout the night during Ramadan. Restaurants along Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, a section of Little Arabia, are bustling during iftar and suhoor.

Ramadan is not about feasting in the middle of the night or spending money on a variety of foods, but these are cultural aspects of this month and they have been mixed with its spirituality. It is important to draw that distinction.

Like iftar, which is usually a joyous gathering between family, friends and neighbors, suhoor serves as a great bonding time with your closest family members.

Affad Shaikh, a Muslim American of Pakistani descent whom I know from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, left his Newport Beach apartment for the month to spend Ramadan with his family.

Affad, 29, recently quit his job and is attending law school. He's out for the summer, which presented the perfect opportunity to spend Ramadan with his parents and younger brother and sister in Palmdale for the first time in a few years.

The family's alarm clocks go off right at 3:30 a.m., the lights go on and all members of his household gather in the kitchen for fried or boiled eggs. Mom prepares Paratha, which is like Pakistani tortilla that Affad and his brother like to eat with honey and dad prefers with banana. Affad makes himself a protein shake.

When the food is ready, everyone sits together to eat, talk and laugh. Affad said they talk about the news, about their plans for the day. Because their dad leaves to work at 5:30 a.m., it's a great chance to spend time and talk with him in the morning.

"I definitely appreciate being with family for suhoor," he said.

Once the family is done eating, they get ready to pray Fajr, which is the first prayer of the day. They also read the Koran and then, Affad said, "I'm usually knocked out."

"During Ramadan, we're kind of forced to sit as a family because of the time constraints," he said. "It's very communal. You get to come together to do these things."

You see, the benefits of Ramadan are endless. It's not just about worshiping God, character building, giving to the needy and refraining from food. It's also about eating together. It's about community.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Shadia: Refreshing my faith during Ramadan

Ramadan starts Thursday night (insert multiple happy faces here).
You would think that because I will be refraining from eating and drinking for about 15 hours a day for the next month, I would be dreading the arrival of Islam's holiest month.

You would think that because I'll be cutting down on my nights out with my friends, and, instead, devoting more of my time to praying and reexamining my priorities, I would be a little bummed out.

But when it comes to Ramadan, frankly, I can forget the food, the drinks, even the parties. There's just something about Ramadan that tingles my heart and brings me a sense of peace and comfort, even more so than praying five times a day, and more so than going to the mosque on any other day.

I don't know about everyone else, but when Ramadan is here, I sense calmness and kindness in the air. I'm usually also more careful, patient, focused and not quick to react to anything (the latter might be because I'm not eating and don't have as much energy).

But the energy I feel is inward, centered and strong. It gets me back to basics, to who I am and what I stand for.

I started fasting when I was 6 years old. And in the last few years, I started promising myself to make each Ramadan better than the one before it. I made that promise to myself when, by the end of two Ramadans ago, I felt I didn't do enough. Didn't pray enough, didn't commit enough. I regretted it and wished I had done more.

Ramadan falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is one of Islam's five pillars. The fast begins Friday.

Forgoing food and drink is not unique to Islam. Some Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Devout Catholics often give up certain foods during Lent, and other Christian denominations follow Jesus' teachings and fast for various periods of time in hopes that self-sacrifice will make them closer to God.

The Koran says that fasting was not only prescribed to us, but also to those who came before.

We fast for many reasons: With all of life's hassles, Ramadan is a chance to stop for a minute and renew your connection with God. It's also a way to change your habits, including eating, and it really leads to seeing things from a clearer perspective and remembering what matters most in life.

Fasting puts us in others' shoes, including those who are dying from starvation and injustice throughout the world. It's a chance to stand beside them, not just by refraining from eating, but by helping them in every way we can.

It's not like we're supposed to do that in Ramadan and then, once it's over, move on and go back to our old ways. Ramadan is a reminder of all the things we should be doing throughout the year and throughout our lives. It's a reminder and a chance for a new beginning.

I know that it's difficult for some to understand. Why starve yourself to do all of that? But Ramadan's fast is not about refraining from eating. This is just one aspect of it, and it's probably the easiest of all.

It's faith. And faith — just like love — is difficult to understand.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Loving dogs at a distance

If you've lived near a Muslim or a Middle Eastern family, or if you know one, then you've probably seen them act a little weird around dogs.

And there are probably few things funnier — or more perplexing — than seeing a full-grown Muslim run, or get visibly uncomfortable, when a dog rushes toward him.

I was that way for a while, and I'll get back to you on why.

But generally, there's a sense out there that Muslims or Islam have a bone to pick with dogs.

As usual, it's more complicated than that. It's quite the opposite, actually. Dogs are mentioned in a positive light in Islam.

There's a story that goes like this: A man was once in deep thirst while on the road. He eventually found a well of water, lowered himself into it, and fulfilled his thirst. On his way out, he found a dog with his tongue out in thirst. So the man went back to the well and scooped water with one of his shoes so the dog could drink. He did this until the dog's thirst was fulfilled.

We are taught that for that simple act of kindness toward the dog, God forgave all of the man's sins, and he was rewarded with paradise.

So why do some Muslims act weirdly around dogs or, in some well-documented instances — like taxi drivers or store owners refusing to give service to blind individuals because they have guide dogs — act in a cruel manner toward them?

It's a combination of two things.

Islam has four dominant schools of thought. Muslims usually follow one — or none.

Each school of thought is referred to by the name of a Muslim scholar who provided rulings on various issues based on analysis of the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad's life and statements. They range from being very conservative to being liberal on numerous questions.

Those scholars usually disagree and give different rulings on the same issues, but they're all nonetheless credible and highly respected by Muslims.

Two Islamic schools of thought, the Shaafi'i and Hanbali, contend that a dog's nasal area, which is often wet, is "najis," or impure, and that means if it touches you or your clothes, you must wash up before praying. It has nothing to do with the dog itself.

If you follow those opinions, you can still have a service dog, guard dog or even a dog as a pet, provided that you keep it mostly in the backyard, make sure it doesn't touch your prayer area, care for it and play with it.

Another school of thought, the Maliki, disagrees. According to Maliki, a dog's nasal area is not impure, and if it touches you, it's no big deal at all.

Some Muslims who follow the impurity opinion take it up a notch, often out of ignorance, and act as if the dog were a disease. They get uncomfortable, freak out or act unkindly when one comes near them and, of course, irresponsibly and unjustly cite Islam.

The other factor is that the places and countries that Middle Easterners come from sometimes negatively influence their reactions toward dogs. For me, the culture and some personal weirdness, not Islam, are what influence my reaction.

In the Middle East, dogs freely roam the streets. They're dirty and sometimes sick or vicious. In Egypt, you stay away from dogs; you don't make space for them in your bed. (I should note that when I went to Egypt in 2010, I didn't notice as many dogs on the streets.)

When we were little, my sister was chased by a dog on two different occasions. She got bitten once in the thigh and still has a round scar there.

I was petrified of dogs.

I also have hygiene issues and have always been this way. I wash my hands many times during the day. I sometimes get up in the middle of eating to wash my hands if I think they got too dirty, then I wash them again after I finish eating.

It's weird, I know.

So I don't like it when a dog's nasal area, especially a drooling one, touches me. I don't like it when I can smell the scent of any animal or when any animal touches me. If I were able to get past that hurdle, I would have a dog for a pet because I'm often characterized as a dog person and some of them are very cute.

It's not the dogs; it's me.

My friend Eric — who loves his dogs, kisses them and lets them (eww!) lick his face — once said, "Mona is not as scared of the dog hurting her as much as she's scared of it kissing her."

So if you see a Muslim or a Middle Easterner act weirdly around a dog, remember that it's probably complicated. If you see a Muslim act unkindly toward a dog and give you the "Islam says" excuse to justify it, know that it's probably ignorance.

Tell them the story about the man who went to heaven for helping a dog. Tell them what the Islamic schools of thought say and how their differing opinions still have nothing against dogs. That'll give them something to think about.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shadia: Five prayers a day is harder than it looks

I struggle to fulfill my commitment to five daily prayers.

It's not something that I'm proud to admit because praying brings out the best in me.

Like eating and drinking to nourish your body, praying five times a day feeds your soul, connects you to God and helps you stay on track.

The exact hour and minute of each prayer may vary, but in general, Muslims pray in the morning, around noon, in the afternoon, at sunset and in the evening. Each prayer is about five minutes or less.

For as long as I can remember, I prayed. Uncle Beautiful must have taught me back in Egypt, though I have to admit, I don't really remember because I was always surrounded by people in constant prostration to God.

In Egypt, you get up in the morning and there's someone praying. You decide to take a nap and when you get up, someone else is praying. You're in school or hanging out on the balcony and you hear the call to prayer and pray.

When I moved to the United States, I gave up praying.

But it wasn't long before I started to pray again. There was a boy I liked in high school. One day we were talking, and he asked what religion I practiced. When I told him, his response was that his Christian beliefs were the real and only way to God and heaven.

When our conversation ended, I went straight to pray.

That's exactly how it happened. I haven't stopped praying since, and I credit that boy for getting me to pray again. (There's a reason why schmucks come into your life.)

I think that part of me worried that I was outside my comfort zone in a new country, and praying reminded me of who I am and what I believe.

When I say I haven't stopped praying since, I should note that I sometimes did not meet all five prayers.

I prayed whenever it was convenient. So instead of five times a day, for years I prayed in the morning, when I got up, and in the evening, before I went to sleep.

I decided last summer that I couldn't pray just twice a day and that I needed to make the effort to do all five.

So I did. I would pray in the morning, as usual. Then I would pray the noon and afternoon prayers after I got home from work. Then I would pray the sunset and evening prayers at their regular times if I was home. But I would sometimes pray in the morning, then the rest all together at night, if I was working late or had plans after work.

Though I felt proud of fulfilling all five prayers, I was soon overwhelmed with praying all four together. I decided in December that to make it easier and correct, I would have to pray on time. I would get up early to fulfill the first prayer. I started keeping a rug, head cover and baggy sweat pants in my desk at work to wear while I pray. You must dress modestly while praying and women must cover their hair.

I told my editors that I would be praying at work and that it wouldn't take away from my work, and they had no problem with it.

I also stopped wearing makeup to work so that when I wash my face, I wouldn't look like such a hot mess.

Yeah. Washing your face with clean water is part of what you do before praying. It's called ablution, "wudou" in Arabic.

At the beginning, I would go to the restroom, do my wudou and wonder what people would think when they walked in and saw me drenching my face, neck, arms and feet with water.

I would go to one of our empty rooms in the office to pray, and while doing so, I wondered what someone would do or say if they walked in on me.

I haven't been caught yet.

Still, there are times when I miss my ritual because I'm busy with a story or simply because I don't want to stop what I'm doing to do something else.

I scold myself when I miss.

Praying is simple.

It makes me feel better and makes me a better person. It doesn't take long. So why can't I easily fulfill each prayer?

I'm not sure what the answer is.

But what I know is that I always return to praying. And I always will.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.