abia Khan’s earliest memories of Ramadan are quiet and full of love. The Oxford Boulevard resident, who grew up in Pakistan, remembers waking in the predawn quiet to eat with her mother before the hours of fasting began, much as Khan’s own household does now.
“There’s something about that time, 3 or 3:30 a.m., that brings peace for me,” she says. “I connect with the divine and am alone with my thoughts in a way that is not possible in the daylight hours.”
Ramadan is a monthlong holiday that commemorates the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. During the month, Muslims fast from pre-dawn until sunset. While fasting may be the more familiar part of Ramadan to outsiders, Khan says it is generosity and empathy that define the experience.
“This is our month of giving,” she says. “It is the common theme across cultures… This is the month that we believe the Quran was given to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.”
This giving can come in any form, but anonymous giving to those in need is especially revered.
This year, Ramadan begins on April 23 and ends on May 23. Khan’s evenings for the 30-day period are anything but quiet, when as many as 200 people may share the nightly festivities at her mosque in Carnegie. During Ramadan, many worshipers break their fast nightly at their mosque. While completing the required prayers at home is sufficient, many choose to attend with their faith community each day because it is the only time when the whole community comes together.
These gatherings take on a global feel, as the mosque represents people who were born in countries all over the world including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and America.
“It is beautiful to watch,” she says. “People of all colors are here.”
The evening festivities include five components: Iftar, which is the breaking of the fast with small portions similar to appetizers; Maghrib Prayer, which is offered at sundown; a buffet meal; Isha, the final prayer of the day; then Taraweeh, the optional prayers specific only to Ramadan.
The word Ramadan means to burn, such as the burning sensation of hunger and the burning away of sins. It is rooted in the word ramad, which means to be scorched by the sun.
The prayers, food and fellowship last so late that sometimes her children don’t crawl into bed until close to midnight. Her family then will wake in a few hours to eat before the sunrise, which starts the cycle of fasting over again. But Khan emphasizes that the process is just one of the 12 months.
“Throughout the year, you feed your body, but this is the month everyone tries to feed their soul,” she says.
Fasting means not just abstaining from food and drink, but from all bad habits like smoking or gossiping.
Neither the fasting nor the exhaustion feel like deprivation to Khan, who speaks of a spiritual high experienced by many. This energy helps them face the hours of work, school or other responsibilities that they must continue to complete each day. And hunger reminds them of how fortunate they are to have access to food on a regular basis when many people in the world do not.
Such routines are perhaps more challenging in a place, like the United States, where the majority of the population is not Muslim. In countries such as Pakistan, school or work activities are shortened to eliminate lunches and moved to earlier in the day when practitioners have more strength. Restaurants are closed during daylight hours.
The last 10 nights of Ramadan are believed to hold one unknown night of power when good deeds and prayers are magnified exponentially. Therefore, when the bodies are most weak after 20 days of fasting, individuals make tremendous efforts to pray all night or otherwise make determined efforts of faith.
“An important lesson from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is that when you rescue someone from hardship, the reward of that is better than the reward of tens of thousands of prayers that you offer in the mosque,” she says.
The purpose of Ramadan is to improve as a person, working to strengthen the spiritual self so that each individual becomes better. The gift of food is a particularly important Muslim tradition.
Many families in the mosque sponsor a dinner for one night of Ramadan or cook for the entire group. Khan and her husband, Shahab, often invite neighbors to share in meals or events offered by the Muslim community and deliver gifts of food or treasures from Pakistan to neighbors who might not even know them.
“In serving the creation, you are serving the creator,” she says. “Feeding people is one of the best acts of worship.”
Khan works in and out of Ramadan to better understand her faith through timeless practices like reading the Quran and more modern ones like listening to podcasts by sheikhs or scholars. She wants to understand more to pass on this gift of faith to her grandkids through her own children.
Raising her children in a non-Muslim culture has strengthened her faith because she has a greater responsibility to educate her children and help them to preserve their faith than would be necessary if all around them shared in their beliefs, Khan says.
On the last day of Ramadan, Khan and her family will share their evening meal with fellow Muslims and others who wish to attend the interfaith service at her mosque. It promises to be a bustling celebration. But first, before dawn that morning, Khan will have one last quiet meal of this Ramadan season with her own family.