Kenyan Muslims men read the Koran inside Nairobi's Jamia mosque
in this picture taken on November 5, 2004 during the holy month of Ramadan.
Kenyan Muslims pray outside Nairobi's Jamia mosque
during the holy month of Ramadan in this November 5, 2004.
Ramadan fast brings Somali suffering
to mind and body
Susan Hogan/Albach; Staff Writer
January 18, 1997
The Twin Cities – St. Paul
They forgo food and water during Ramadan in the name of Allah. But as survivors of famine, Minnesota's Muslims from Somalia offer a fresh perspective on the religious meaning of fasting.
Mohamed Farid knows the horror of famine. He'll tell you about good people, driven by desperation, who looted and robbed for food. He'll share stories of children so fearful of starving that, when finally given a few morsels, couldn't bring themselves to eat.
Trim and neatly dressed in a business suit, this normally animated grade-school teacher slumps into a student's desk when asked what he knows about hunger. It's not just another subject for Farid, a native of Somalia, a country where more than 350,000 people are estimated to have died in the last five years because of civil war and famine.
In south Minneapolis, Farid's home since he fled his ravaged homeland with his wife and seven children four years ago, it's those emaciated bodies seared in his memory that he recalls as he embarks on a strict religious fast. A faithful Muslim, he's refraining from food and water from sunup to sundown for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.
Fasting has long been revered as a path to holiness among many of the world's religions. But the practice is not as widespread as it once was, except among Muslims, who regard fasting (siyam) as a pillar of faith. For Muslims, Ramadan isn't considered a hardship, but a time of charity and fellowship, so revered that even those most lax in their faith are observant.
Among the estimated 25,000 Muslims in Minnesota, a burgeoning Somali population offers a unique perspective to the fast. Among them are refugees, who endured a food crisis that threatened their survival. One purpose of the Ramadan fast is to help Muslims appreciate the suffering endured by those who are hungry.
"My experience of Ramadan before the hunger crisis in Somalia is totally different than it is today, having been through that," said the 57-year-old Farid as he sat in his classroom after a school day.
"I feel for all the poor and needy of the world because I know what it means to go hungry," he said. "I have seen the effects of starvation. I am alive only because of Allah. The possessions I lost don't matter."
Muslims believe that during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, their prophet Mohammed, who lived in the seventh century, first received revelations from Allah that became the Quran, their scripture. In Sura 2:183-185, the Quran explains the purpose of fasting:
"O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self-restraint."
As in most religions that uphold fasting, Muslims believe that through self-denial comes a deeper appreciation for Allah and the basic necessities of life, such as food and water. With the new awareness, followers are moved to engage in acts of charity. Muslims from war-torn countries like Somalia often say that fighting lessens or ceases altogether during this time of spiritual stocktaking.
"Even with all the hardship in Somalia, people were happy to fast during Ramadan," said Aden Amin, who came to Minneapolis three months ago with his wife, Sofia Abdilahi, and their six children. "If you die in Ramadan, we believe you go to heaven."
Amin and Abdilahi live in a modest apartment in south Minneapolis, furnished largely by donations. Like many Somalis who resettled in Minnesota, the couple saw their home and most of their possessions destroyed by clan-based militias.
"We were lucky to get out alive," said Amin, 61, a once-prosperous business executive. "We fled because of the bombs, the bullets. Everyone was scared for their lives. Now there is nothing left to return to."
Matthew Ramadan, vice-president of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Muslim Council, calls the Somalis "Minnesota's newest Muslims." He said the influx has come so fast that many are struggling to find jobs and affordable housing.
Tim Gordon, a policy analyst with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, believes that between 7,000 and 9,000 Somalis have been resettled in the state since 1992, when the fighting erupted. Most come from refugee camps.
"Most refugees are admitted to this country because they are unable to return to their country for fear of persecution," said Gordon, who added that the Somalis have settled largely in the metro area, Marshall and Rochester.
Amin, who doesn't have a job, said he doesn't mind being poor because, in Minneapolis, his family is safe and has food to eat. The Ramadan fast reinforces his belief that spiritual wealth is more valuable than any material possessions.
"We've had everything taken away from us, but we still have each other and our faith," he said with a wide smile. "Allah has been good to us. It is a joy to fast for Ramadan."
Abdullahi Mohamed said that during Ramadan, the people of his Somali homeland are seldom far from mind, although he feels compassion for all those in need.
"Americans have plenty of food. If you don't want to eat at home, you have plenty of places to go," said the 37-year-old teacher at Benjamin Banneker Community School in Minneapolis, where one-fourth of the 650 students are Somalis.
Besides forgoing food and water, Muslims also refrain from sexual activity and sensuous pleasures, such as listening to music and smoking, during Ramadan. They focus on moral living and believe spiritual purification comes through gaining control over bodily desires.
Jews and Christians share similar beliefs. For instance, the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur is a time of solemnity as well as joy. Fasting is considered part of the process of atonement.
The heyday for fasting among Christians was the Middle Ages. In its extreme form, saints such as Catherine of Siena and Clare of Assisi fasted to near starvation and often flogged themselves to gain control over carnal desires and induce mystical visions.
"We no longer think of people who torture themselves as holy, but once upon a time it was," said Rudolph Bell, the author of "Holy Anorexia" and a professor of history at Rutgers University. "It's a shift in tastes. Today, Mother Teresa is considered holy because of her service to the poor. That was not a virtue in the 14th century."
The Quran states that fasting shouldn't be used as torture. Done properly, Muslims say, the spiritual rewards reaped by fasting will benefit them on their Judgment Day. Many Somalis, like teacher Farid, consider the unrest in their homeland a sign of Allah's displeasure with them.
"It's punishment for our bad deeds," Farid said of the war that's destroyed his once-vibrant country of 8 million people.
Alone in his classroom, with blackboards full of scribbled notes about Somalia, Farid clutches his Quran for a final reflection.
"As Muslims, we believe what is happening is the decision of Allah," he said. "We also believe our fast pleases him."
© Copyright 1997.
A tired muslim devotee yawns during prayers on the last day of Ramadan
in a mosque south of Nairobi January 30.
Kenyan Muslims women read the Koran inside Nairobi's Jamia mosque
November 11, 2004 during the holy month of Ramadan.
Kenyan Muslims pray at the Jamia Mosque in Nairobi on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims across the world fast from dawn to dusk, November 21, 2003.
The point of a minaret of the old Jamia mosque is seen in Nairobi
in this picture taken on November 5, 2004 during the holy month of Ramadan.