SPRING HILL — Muslims worldwide began their annual observance of Ramadan this week.
Dr. Ghiath Mahmaljy, a Spring Hill endocrinologist and doctor of internal medicine, is the spiritual leader, or imam, of the Islamic Center of Hernando County, and he took a few minutes from his busy practice to share his thoughts on the monthlong observance.
"There are no special festivities," Mahmaljy said, explaining the practices of his wife, Samar, their children and himself. "The daily schedule is different. We wake up before dawn and have a meal, and then we stop eating and drinking until sunset."
Once the daily fast is broken, usually by eating dates, there is evening prayer.
"We have the sunset prayer together, and then we eat our meal, which is usually very light," he said.
Even though fasting is not required until the age of puberty, like many Muslims, Mahmaljy, 56, began participating in Ramadan as a very young child.
"Most children, including my children, are actually very excited and even compete with one another and are proud that they can fast even at a young age," he said. "It's a challenge they like and cherish."
He recalled memories of his childhood during those special days, waking up to what he remembers as the "beautiful sound of the call for prayer" over loudspeakers.
"The most difficult part is when your parents wake you up. It's so early, so dark where I was born (in Damascus, Syria) that dawn used to be between 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. So you have to get up at a time when you are so sleepy," he said.
His mother would make the special predawn meal for her family.
"My mother used to try to go out of her way preparing all kinds of delicious stuff so we would eat, because we were reluctant to eat that early," he said. "So she would get up earlier than us and cook stuff that early, in the middle of the night."
Mahmaljy, who has lived in the United States for 31 years, says he enjoyed the practice then as well as now.
"It's really nice," he said. "It's tough training, but it teaches you to follow this strict regime even though it's very difficult. It's out of your natural type of living, but it's a nice challenge."
Daily restrictions during Ramadan also prohibit sexual relations between husbands and wives and using profanity or getting into disputes.
"It teaches self-control and to have willpower," he said. "But that's just the physical aspects of it. The other recommended things, which the prophet (Mohammed) explained, is that the purpose of the fast is not just to abstain from food and drink but to abstain from evil talk and evil actions, so that you may achieve God-consciousness and piety."
During the evenings of Ramadan, after families break their fast and eat at home, there is a time among the Muslim community for the night prayer, called Taraweeh, at the mosque on Barclay Avenue.
Mahmaljy will lead about 80 families in prayer and recitations from the Koran each evening. He may do a little teaching as well.
"We do bowing and prostration," he said. "During the last 10 days, some of us may spend the whole night, staying up just for the purpose of doing supplications and prayers."
Mahmaljy said Ramadan is a time when Muslims learn about compassion and giving up attachments to material things.
"It teaches you servitude to God (Allah)," he said. "It reminds you of how weak you are when you go hungry. It really breaks down some of the arrogance in the human soul and is a reminder that many people go hungry, not by choice, but of necessity because they don't have the means to eat or drink."
The feelings gained during Ramadan gradually fade, Mahmaljy said.
"We hope that will last beyond Ramadan, but in reality, that effect gradually wanes down. That's why it comes … once a year, so that you can recharge again the next year," he explained.
All in all, Ramadan teaches Muslims to become better people, he said.
"The whole idea is we want to all come out of this month as more compassionate, kinder, closer to God, more spiritual and less indulgent toward the materialistic aspect of life," he said. "The essence of it is that you are showing that you are willing to give up things that you like and overcome the desires that you have. And that's really the bottom line. By doing that, you become a better human being."