By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 29, 2008 - With more than 250,000 U.S. troops serving throughout the Middle East -- including Iraq and Afghanistan -- a U.S. Army Muslim chaplain said the need for understanding Islamic culture is as important as basic soldiering skills. One of the most important aspects in Islam is the month-long Ramadan observance. For Muslims, Ramadan is considered to be the holiest time of the year, as the lunar month is intended to be a celebration of peace, prayer and reconciliation, said Army Chaplain (Capt.) Mohammed Khan, assigned to the 20th Engineer Brigade, Fort Bragg, N.C.
Today, more than 1 billion people around the world, including nearly 5,000 active duty and reserve-component U.S. military members, are estimated to be followers of Islam.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic, or lunar, calendar. The calendar is based on the cycle of the moon, and unlike the more-widely used Gregorian, or solar, calendar, which is 365 days long, is only 255. Because of the shorter year, the dates for Ramadan begin 11 to 12 days earlier each year, according to the Gregorian calendar. This year, Ramadan falls from sunset Aug. 31 through sunrise Sept. 30.
The significance of Ramadan dates back to the year Ramadan 610 in the 7th century A.D. Muslims believe that is when the initial verses of the Koran were sent to Earth from the heavens – when the Angel Gabriel visited Muhammad and imparted the words of God, or Allah, to him that would eventually become Islam's holy scripture, according to Islamic tradition.
Muhammad, the central human figure in Islam believed to be God's final and greatest messenger, began preaching Allah's message from the angel. He told his followers that the gates of heaven would be open and the gates of hell would be locked during the entire month of Ramadan. He is also believed to have stressed the importance of fasting and piety during this period, Khan said.
Muslims observe the month by fasting, which is one of the five pillars, or guiding principles, of Islam. They fast daily from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from eating, drinking (including water), sex, smoking or becoming ill-tempered as a means of purification to attain consciousness of Allah and guard against the influence of Satan.
"For Muslims, it is not how long one can fast, it is how well he or she can follow the guidance of Allah," Khan said. "One of the important benefits of the fast is to bring to mind the hardships of the less fortunate members of the society, which makes humans more aware and more sympathetic to the needs of others."
Certain groups of people, however, are exempt from fasting, such as the sick, those traveling more than 50 miles, pregnant or breast-feeding women, and women in their monthly menstruation cycle, Khan explained.
Full exemption is granted to those permanently incapacitated because of old age, disease or interrupted hard labor. But exempt Muslims must substitute each day they cannot fast by feeding a hungry person or paying the cost of food sufficient to provide an average person a modest meal, he added.
If possible, Muslims should provide help for the less fortunate, such as feeding them or performing other good deeds during Ramadan. Muslims and their communities are encouraged to make amends, treat others well and place emphasis in acknowledging basic family values, he said.
"Ramadan serves as a periodic adjustment for proper human balance," the chaplain said. "This state ultimately allows individuals to gain self-mastery and total control over their heated desires, selfish appetites and other urges that dominate the life of every woman and man in this society. Muslims deny the body those things which are normally lawful in order to strengthen the total self against all that is unlawful."
During the last 10 days of Ramadan, reward for prayer and good actions increases as the "Night of Power," or Laylatul Qadr, occurs on the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or the 29th of Ramadan, which is said to be better than a thousand months. It's unknown when exactly this night is, so Muslims are expected to increase prayer efforts on these days.
The festival of Eid-ul-Fitr celebrates the end of the fast and Ramadan. The festival lasts for three days and is observed by joyful celebration of enhanced piety, moral victory, peace, and fellowship, Khan said. "The feast brings families and friends together," he added.
"During Ramadan, Muslims sacrifice time from their usual pastimes in order to increase their spiritual growth," Khan said. "The extra time is to be spent praying, reading the Holy Koran and re-establishing proper management over every aspect of one's life."