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From Dusk 'til Dawn

~ Ramadan explained by Imam Yakubu Mohammed ~

By Rik Haverman.

The holy month of Ramadan will come to an end next week. This is the Islamic month of dawn-to-sunset fasting required of all Muslims worldwide. The ending of this period of fasting will be celebrated with Eid al-Fitr or the Feast of Breaking. This celebration will take place next Friday, July 17. With this festivity in sight, today's article is a perfect opportunity to discuss the meaning of Ramadan with Yakubu Mohammed, the Imam of St. Maarten Islamic Center.

Nigerian-born Yakubu Mohammed is the spiritual leader of the St. Maarten Muslim community – a community that emerged through Muslim merchants who came for business activities and eventually settled on the island. Overtime, these St. Maarten Muslims evolved into an organized community with their own mosque and imam. The imam sees his role as that of conducting and overseeing all the religious aspects of the mosque: "The prayers, religious teachings, religious announcements and other activities like counselling; they're all my responsibility as an imam."

During Ramadan the imam's schedule is even more packed. "Ramadan is the busiest period for me. I can travel for my vacation every month of the year, except during Ramadan. It's the busiest month of the year for all Muslims on the island. More prayers and religious activities take place during the holy month and these require my presence."

IMAM MOHAMMED explained the concept: "Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Just like the widely used Gregorian calendar, the Islamic or Hijri calendar consists of 12 months. However, the Hijri calendar contains only 354 days and each month consists of 29 or 30 days." The latter, the Imam stated, depends on the visibility of the moon, which also plays a major part in the month of Ramadan: From the moment the crescent of the new moon is seen, the eighth month (Sha'aban) ends and the ninth of Ramadan begins.

The reason the ninth month is selected to fast is because Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to Muhammad at this time. These revelations, which took place during the seventh century, literally instructed Muslims to fast during Ramadan. The fasting itself, however, was nothing new. Followers of other religions in the region, like Christianity and Judaism, also fasted to show their devotion to the oneness of God.

WITH THE above in mind, it should come as no surprise that Ramadan has an important position within Islam. Fasting during Ramadan is even one of the five pillars of the religion. These pillars are basic acts in Islam and are considered the foundation of a Muslim's life. Besides fasting during Ramadan (Sawm), they consist of the confession of faith (Shahadah), the daily prayers (Salat), charity (Zakat) and the performance of a pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).

The imam elaborated: "Being alive to witness Ramadan is important to Muslims because it's a time in which the mercy and blessing of God is much closer to people. Muslims worldwide are more spiritually conscious and involved during this month."

THE IMPORTANCE of Ramadan has been translated into the many detailed rules that are drawn up for the Holy Month. For example, the rule to fast "from the break of dawn until sunset" is much more specific than one might suspect. "The fasting is not just from the moment the light comes up until the light comes down, but from the moment that the whiteness of the day becomes distinct from the blackness of the night." Nowadays, Islamic scholars are able to figure out exactly (with the help of technology) when this whiteness occurs. Imam Mohammed stated that this Ramadan the day begins at a quarter past four in the morning and ends at a quarter to seven in the evening.

Many rules are also applied to ensure that fasting never constitutes a danger to the participants. For instance, only mature, healthy and sane Muslims may undergo the fasting. Certain people are even exempted from fasting. Mohammed explained: "Children that are not yet of age are exempted from Ramadan because fasting can cause hazard to their bodies, which are still weak. The same goes for the elderly and sick people. Although a distinction is made with the latter: people who are chronically ill are absolved completely, while people who encounter a temporary sickness during Ramadan are supposed to make up for it afterwards."

FURTHERMORE, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar is much more than abstention from eating and drinking, for example Muslims are not allowed to engage in sexual activities during the daytime hours. Also, charity plays an important role during Ramadan: "During the period of fasting, every Muslim is expected to be as charitable as possible. Although this is an integral part throughout the life of a Muslim, the importance is much more felt during the month of Ramadan, whereby wealthy Muslims try to do as much as possible to reach out to everybody."

Imam Yakubu Mohammed clarified this by explaining that any act of kindness, goodness or generosity during Ramadan is getting a multiple reward from God. "There are two types of charity within Islam; compulsory and voluntary. The first one is the third pillar of Islam and every wealthy Muslim is expected to fulfil this duty. At the end of the year, those who have an income that reaches a certain amount have to make a total evaluation of their wealth and take off two and a half percent. This percentage has to be distributed to the less fortunate. Some Muslims decide to pay this compulsory charity during Ramadan because it is considered more pious and valuable."

VOLUNTARY CHARITY can be given at any time, by any person (wealthy or poor) and to any individual. This charity can consist out of anything: something as simple as giving an apple to your neighbour can be considered as voluntary charity. Voluntary charity is also seen as more rewarding during Ramadan. The imam pointed out that there is charity that is only mandatory during the month of Ramadan: "At the end of fasting, every wealthy Muslim is equally expected to give out charity. This charity is aimed at helping the less privileged to enjoy the 'End of Ramadan' festival."

He continued: "Ramadan teaches people to have a sense of feeling for other people, especially the wealthy Muslims that can afford to eat and drink whenever they want, to get an idea of what it's like not having enough to eat. This can be an incentive to reach out to the less fortunate. The Holy Month also is an opportunity for all Muslims to get closer to God. It's a period of spiritual cleansing: it cleans you from the mistakes made throughout the year. Also, more people frequent the mosque during Ramadan, which makes it a period of togetherness, of sharing and love. Personally, I consider Ramadan as a very beautiful occasion. It gives me the opportunity to evaluate myself as an individual – Where do I need to improve in my (religious) life? – therefore, I always pray and look forward to the coming of Ramadan."

THE ADVANTAGES of Ramadan are also noticeable for the non-Muslims on The Friendly Island. St. Maarten Islamic Center organized a daily breaking of fast in the mosque during Ramadan. Every individual, Muslim or non-Muslim, was (and still is) welcome to partake in these meals. On a weekly basis, on Sunday, the entire Muslim community gathered at the mosque for a dinner. Here too, non-Muslims were (and are) invited to join.

This demonstrates that St. Maarten Islamic Center is very much open to The Friendly Island society. The mosque tries to reach out to the St. Maarteners frequently: "When we hear of any calamity concerning Muslim or non-Muslim, we try to help out – fire, accidents and people in need – you name it, we reach out. Also, individuals within the St. Maarten Muslim community try to do so. In addition, all The Friendly Islanders with questions about Islam are welcome here in the mosque." Furthermore, the imam is always prepared to cooperate with other religious and non-religious groups on the island concerning purposes that will benefit the St. Maarten society as a whole.

THE SOCIAL involvement of the Islamic community in St. Maarten is based on the pleasure with which they live on this island. The last words of Imam Yakubu Mohammed during the conversation for this article emphasized this: "St. Maarten is a multicultural, multi-religious island, and as Muslims on The Friendly Island, we are very grateful to the St. Maarteners. We can really say we enjoy living on the island. We enjoy having total freedom to practice our religion, without any interruption or restrictions from anybody. I wish the entire people of St. Maarten the best in their life. The people of St. Maarten have been very kind. To us, it is not surprising that this island is known as The Friendly Island. We pray that the friendliness will continue to exist, as long as the island itself will exist on this planet."