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Ramadan respected at USF

Local Muslims join their counterparts worldwide in abstaining from food and drink from dawn until dusk.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2000

TAMPA -- The day begins before dawn for 600 Muslim students at the University of South Florida.

Even those who rarely enter a mosque are rising while it's still dark so they can eat before the dawn-to-dusk, monthlong fast of Ramadan begins each day. Whatever they eat and drink during that pre-dawn meal, called suhur, must last them all day until the evening meal.

Exceptions are made for the ill, the elderly and the pregnant, but not for the college student cramming for final exams.

Water and dates, traditional suhur fare, won't get them through the day. Their mothers urge potatoes and beans on them as more filling, but young Muslims have their own ways of coping.

"We've all learned little tricks," said Naveed Kamal, a 16-year-old senior in a private Muslim school, the Universal Academy of Florida. "Eating yogurt, Gatorade and Power Bars at suhur helps.

"Gyro meat is especially long-lasting," said 15-year-old Ossama Elsham, a fellow student. Both also attend classes at USF.

Muslims worldwide, including 5.5-million in the United States, are forgoing food, liquids, smoking and sex during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. They'll devote more time to contemplation, prayer and self-improvement. Some will make resolutions to break bad habits.

According to the lunar calendar followed in Islam, Ramadan began this year with the new moon on Nov. 27 and will end with the new moon of Dec. 24.

"Muslims take Ramadan pretty seriously," said Imran Ismail, 20, president of the Muslim Students Association at USF. "Even those who don't pray five times a day will be fasting."

Ismail has experienced Ramadan only in this country, but Kamal and Elsham know what it's like when a whole country celebrates. Kamal, from Egypt, recalls being able to hear calls to prayer reverberating through the streets, not just inside the walls of one of the two mosques in Hillsborough County.

Elsham, from Pakistan, says many restaurants in that country give away food at the end of the fast, which is celebrated with a three-day festival of family get-togethers, feasting and socializing. In Tampa, the mosque of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay will set up a carnival for children.

Ismail hopes that in the future Ramadan will be more widely recognized and acknowledged in this country, as Christian and Jewish holidays are.

In the meantime, he and other Muslim students work out conflicts that arise between their usual activities and the fast.

Ismail, a pre-med student, got permission from two professors to leave late-afternoon classes in sign language and virology early so he can join other Muslims for each evening's meal. That usually begins about 5:30 p.m.

If his professors hadn't been so flexible, Ismail would have had to wait another 90 minutes before his first food and drink since dawn.

He also talked to a physical education teacher at Wharton High School, arranging for his younger sister to run her laps after the evening meal, instead of just before it.

By the time Ramadan ends, Muslims believe they will be stronger spiritually and better behaved toward others. Their hope, said Ismail, is that their resolve during Ramadan to avoid telling a lie, indulging in gossip or behaving greedily will carry over into the rest of the year.

"Ramadan teaches self-discipline," he said. "People are a lot nicer during this month. Everyone is actively trying to be a better person, and nobody has the energy to do wrong."

-- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.

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