Muslims prepare to observe holy month of Ramadan

ST. PETERSBURG — With the approach of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a sign-up sheet is filling up at Masjid Al Sunnah, where members volunteer to bring meals each evening to break the daily fast.

The dishes will represent the cultural diversity of the primarily Middle Eastern, Caribbean and African-American community. Imam Mohamed Benkhaled's family will contribute traditional Moroccan dishes of chicken or beef and rice and salad.

Fazia Hassan, who is from Guyana, hasn't signed up yet, but in the past has taken pilau, a spiced rice dish with beef.

And Mazin Marie, of Palestinian heritage, said his family usually covers a couple of nights during the holy month, bringing chicken, fish or lamb, rice, soup, salads and dessert.

Masjid Al Sunnah is a typical American mosque, according to a study released in February. The report, the American Mosque 2011, says most mosques are diverse, with South Asians, Arab-Americans and African-Americans representing the largest groups of worshipers. There also are significant numbers of Somalis, West Africans and Iraqis.

During Ramadan, the month of repentance, Muslims are obliged to refrain from food and drink during daylight hours. Breaking the fast with the iftar, or evening meal, is an important part of the observation and is usually done as a community. At Masjid Al Sunnah, 2401 Fifth St. S in St. Petersburg's Harbordale neighborhood, the iftar will take place between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. each evening.

"We start with dates and water at sunset and we go to prayer and then we go back to eat and then we come back for prayer," Benkhaled said.

He expects about 60 to 100 people each night and more on weekends.

Since the timing of Ramadan is dictated by the sighting of the crescent moon, the holy month could start on Friday or Saturday evening, Benkhaled said. In a pre-Ramadan sermon on Friday during Jum'ah, or weekly prayers, he told worshipers that diversity and differences of opinion should never lead to hatred or animosity.

Mazin Marie, who lives in Clearwater with his wife and four children, ages 5 to 13, said this Ramadan he plans to focus on the difficulties of people around the world.

"We here as Muslims in the United States, we have a lot to be thankful for. We are prosperous and we can't help but look around the world and see Muslims and non-Muslims who are suffering," he said. "We pray for the peace and security of everybody. This is what we pray for at this time."

He and his family also are conscious that they live in a fast-paced society.

"We try to clear our time from all distractions and all extra activities and try to devote our time to worship and to spend our time in the masjid and doing charity, trying to devote our entire time to be as spiritual as possible," he said.

While observant Muslims are expected to fast from food and drink during Ramadan, nursing mothers, children, the elderly and the ill are exempt. Ramadan, which commemorates the anniversary of God's revelation of the Koran to the prophet Mohammed, also is a time for reading the Koran, saying extra prayers and offering charity, Fazia Hassan said. She said people also use the holy month to try to rid themselves of bad habits.

While children are required to begin fasting when they reach puberty, Marie said his 13-year-old son began observing the discipline three years ago. His 12-year-old daughter began on her own last Ramadan, he said, while her 8-year-old sister began half-day fasting a year ago. His children are supported in their religious commitment at their Islamic school in Tampa, the Universal Academy of Florida, Marie said, adding that the school adjusts its calendar and hours to accommodate Ramadan observations of staffers and students.

The school is one of two kindergarten through 12th grade Islamic institutions in Tampa, Marie said. The other is American Youth Academy. In St. Petersburg, Masjid Al Sunnah will open Crescent Academy, which will start with a day care and voluntary prekindergarten program, or VPK, this fall. The schools are all open to non-Muslims, he said.

The schools attest to what the Mosque report describes as a growing Muslim population in the United States, estimated at around 7 million.

The report was sponsored by several organizations, including the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America. According to the study, there were 2,106 mosques across the country in 2011, compared to 1,209 in 2000. Florida, with 118 mosques, ranked fourth among states with the largest number. The report also said that Muslims who attend Eid al-Fitr prayers, which mark the end of Ramadan, number around 2.6 million.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Muslims prepare to observe holy month of Ramadan 07/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 4:32pm]

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