At midday the Muslim faithful started coming in from the heat, gathering in a mosque in northwest Oxford for the “Jumu’ah,” the Friday prayer.
The brothers and sisters greeted one another with silent smiles and removed their shoes. The men went into a side room to perform the ritual washing. The women took their seats behind a carved, wooden screen.
Muhammed Ezzam read from the Quran, passages about how Allah provides for the small birds and watches over the tiniest aspects of creation.
When everyone was settled, Ezzam called them to prayer. They stood, faced toward the East, and began.
The members of the Oxford mosque meet every Friday for prayer but today, along with the rest of the Muslim world, they enter the holy season of Ramadan, a time of intense prayer and fasting that reminds them of the core principles of their faith.
“Ramadan is about cleaning your heart and your mind and focusing attention on God,” said Ahmed Galal, a research scientist at the University of Mississippi and a member of the mosque.
Ramadan is the name of the ninth month on the Muslim calendar. It commemorates Allah’s revelation of the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, to the prophet Muhammed. Much like the season of Lent in Christianity, or the High Holy Days of Judaism, Ramadan is a period during which Muslims slow down and simplify their lives.
On a recent Friday, after reciting the “Dhuhr,” one of five prayers that Muslims say each day, Galal took a seat in front of an embroidered tapestry depicting surah 112 from the Quran: “He is Allah, the one and only…He begets not nor is he begotten, and there is none like unto him.”
“This is an interesting passage,” said Galal, gesturing over his shoulder. “I’ve read the Bible many times, and I like it. There is much similarity in what the Quran says and what the Bible says, don’t you think?”
Zack, a young Caucasian convert to Islam, put away his prayer book and sat beside Galal. He’s getting ready to observe his first Ramadan and he plans to spend a couple of days during the month essentially camping out in the mosque, immersing himself in prayer and study.
“Especially during the last 10 days of Ramadan, there will be people here around the clock,” said Zack. “Some Muslims enter more deeply into the experience than others. That’s part of what’s great about Ramadan, as I understand it. Muslims can participate in a number of ways.”
Charity is another important duty during Ramadan. “Zakat” or almsgiving is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is required of Muslims year-round. During Ramadan they intensify their efforts.
Most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims live in developing countries and poverty is always at their door. It’s because of this, Galal said, that almsgiving is so important.
Many of the members of the Oxford mosque are teachers or students at Ole Miss and they’re involved in service projects through the school. They also donate to area food pantries.
At the end of Ramadan Zack, who favors simple t-shirts, jeans and boots, plans to give most of his clothes away to Goodwill.
As with Christianity and Judaism, Islam is both a religion and a way of life, a cultural and symbolic understanding of belonging to a group with common customs and world-views.
Ghassan Mahmoud, or Gus, as people call him, considers himself a secular Muslim. He doesn’t regularly attend a mosque but the native Palestinian still identifies strongly with the customs of his homeland. Ramadan is always an important time in his home.
Mahmoud operates a convenience store in northwestern Lee County. He sells hot food, like gyros and fried chicken, pleasing to the nose, and ice cold beverages and sugary snacks. During Ramadan he, like all Muslims, fasts from sunup to sundown. They consume nothing, not even water. Mahmoud said being around the food is excruciating, but that’s part of the discipline.
Obesity rates among Americans are at an all-time high and some say the country is choking on its own consumption. Mahmoud says the hunger he feels from fasting sharpens his awareness of himself and Allah’s presence in his life. He’s traveled widely and he’s found great meaning in the ascetic practices of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.
“The emptiness in the stomach can help us focus on the emptiness in the soul,” said Mahmoud. “Only God can fill us. The great religions know this.”
Fasting during Ramadan is a duty only of the able-bodied and if a Muslim cannot fast he must donate money equivalent to two meals each day to charity.
Ramadan isn’t all self-mortification, however. Fellowship is also important.
At sundown, after the fourth prayer of the day, known as “Maghrib,” Mahmoud’s family gathers with his brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews around the table. They feast on mansef, a dish of lamb and cooked yogurt with rice and nuts that’s eaten by hand, and maqloobeh, which means “upside down” in Arabic, a spicy dish of chicken with eggplant and rice.
“We enjoy being together and observing our customs as a family,” said Mahmoud. “This is part of the humanitarian aspect of our belief. I feel it is also pleasing to Allah.”
Because Ramadan is based on a lunar cycle the date drifts 10 days each year and recycles every 35 years. For a while now Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere have been observing it during summer. The long days and the heat make fasting hard. Mahmoud embraces the challenge.
“God didn’t put us on this earth to torture us,” he said. “There’s value in discomfort. ‘Jihad’ actually means struggle, and during Ramadan we struggle with ourselves.”
At the mosque, Galal slipped on his shoes, turned out the lights and prepared to lock up. He paused in front of the prayer room, and reflected.
“A Muslim must always ask, particularly during Ramadan, ‘Have I done all that I can?” he said. “All that I can to help the poor? All that I can to clean my heart?”
He folded his hands in front of him, searching for the right words. “All that I can to – to – to avoid being a slave? Have I done all that I can?”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal