When Ramadan falls in summer, fasting is a special challenge

Maheen Khan washes his feet before the meal and prayer as his son, Ibrahim, sits with him. Khan is the organizer of the "iftar" at the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Maheen Khan washes his feet before the meal and prayer as his son, Ibrahim, sits with him. Khan is the organizer of the "iftar" at the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 16, 2013

Daily fasting by devout Muslims in the holy month of Ramadan is always a challenge of self-discipline.

When the month falls in the summer, as it did this year, beginning last Tuesday, the long days from sunup to sundown make going without food or drink until the break-fast meal, or iftar, even harder.

Linked to the lunar calendar, the start of the holiday, which celebrates God's revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, moves back about 11 days annually, explained Arshad Amanullah, of Collegeville, who joined 150 worshipers at Thursday's prayer service and iftar at the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge mosque in Devon.

About 15 years from today, in the northern hemisphere, Ramadan will fall during the short days of winter, said Amanullah, a pharmaceutical scientist, who was born in India and is an old hand at fasting.

But this year, newcomers to the ritual, like his 16-year-old son, Aamir, a rising junior at Spring-Ford Area High School, "have to tough it out" through long hot days, he said. "I feel sorry for him."

Running through the holiday's end with the arrival of the new moon Aug. 7, Ramadan rituals will play out around Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, from Masjid Quba, in West Philadelphia, which bills itself as the city's oldest mosque, founded in 1949, to the Muslim-American Community Association in Voorhees.

The Philadelphia area - estimated to have at least 30,000 adherents of Islam - is dotted with dozens of mosques and Islamic organizations.

The region's Muslim community includes African Americans, Pakistanis, Moroccans, Iraqis, Egyptians, Syrians, Bangladeshis, Yemenis, and other ethnic groups

Some organizations, including the Islamic Society in Devon, are planning interfaith iftars with congregations from nearby churches and synagogues.

Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. will host the first iftar ever at City Hall, with guests arriving at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and breaking the fast 50 minutes later. Invitees include Mayor Nutter and other elected officials.

The Devon mosque's iftar organizer, Maheen Khan, 32, a software developer, also of Collegeville, said that rather than tank up in the morning during Ramadan, he eats a light breakfast of pancakes and cereal well before 4 a.m. and the first of the five daily prayers that observant Muslims perform.

"On a regular day, if I don't have lunch by 3 p.m., I'm starving," he said. But during Ramadan, he feels himself getting into a familiar groove as his stomach starts to shrink. During Ramadan, "I couldn't pig out even if I wanted to," he said.

Dressed in a traditional, ankle-length robe called a thobe, Khan supervised the setting-up of food brought in from a favorite halal catering company in Edison, N.J. He said he had special empathy for people who have to work outdoors during summer Ramadans, like deliverymen and auto mechanics. Not only are the summer days long, but they can be hot and humid as well.

"A lot of religious holidays are tied to the seasons," said Wasim Rahman, 33, of Wayne, who broke fast Thursday at the Devon mosque with a potato-filled somosa and fragrant strawberry-flavored milk.

"But Ramadan floats through the seasons," he said, "which puts the emphasis on the spiritual. That is not to put down any other holiday, but Ramadan puts the focus on the spiritual, instead of the time of year, because it never is a consistent time of year."

After breaking fast, worshipers in Devon entered the prayer hall for a service led by Khan's younger brother, Mubeen, 16, who as a boy of 12 had already memorized all 114 chapters of the Quran.

Following the service, there was a full meal, including rice pilaf, stewed chicken, okra, and naan.

While most of the members in Devon are from South Asia, Thursday's iftar included student visitors from Turkey.

Hasan Isik, 22, of Istanbul, said that joining the iftar meant a lot to him because a day earlier, "it was just me and my meal" alone in his room. "To be here," he said, "is like home."

The Devon mosque holds iftars open to the public Thursdays and Saturdays for anyone who is fasting for the holiday. Fridays and Sundays, the facility is open to members who want to sponsor private iftars for family, friends, or business associates.

For the public iftars, which run about $2,000 a night and feed 150 to 200 people, the community donates and pools its money. Volunteers handle all of the logistics, from setup to cleanup.

"None of the money comes out of the Society's bank account. It all comes from donations," said Khan, tapping an envelope stuffed with about $4,000 handed to him Thursday by donors.

He will need about four times that amount to cover the month. But he wasn't concerned.

"I'm not worried," he said, grabbing up his 16-month-old son, Ibrahim. "We'll get it. We always do."

Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @MichaelMatza1.

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