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Spiritual detox through fasting

A fifth of the world's population has not been eating or drinking during daylight for three weeks. In Malta too, the majority of the 6,000 Muslim residents abstain from food and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset and at night engage in extra prayer until September 19. It's Ramadan time.

The atmosphere at the Islamic mosque in Paola was intense. Thousands gathered for midday prayers and they overflowed from the mosque to a makeshift praying area outside.

Those present had woken up at about 4 a.m. to eat the traditional suhoor pre-dawn meal. After this, they cannot touch food and water till iftar (fast-breaking) at sunset, when they gather for dinner and quench their thirst as they thank their creator.

"Ramadan makes us grateful for even the simplest foods. We appreciate the value of bread and water, conscious that so many around the world experience the same hunger involuntarily. It makes us empathise with the sufferings of the needy," Imam Mohammed El Saadi said.

Throughout the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, devotees are also expected to refrain from anger, retaliation, gossiping and impatience as fasting is intended to teach self-restraint.

Ramadan seems to be a fast from the unpleasant side of one's character. Imam El Saadi said the idea of fasting led to an incredible level of self-awareness: "The eye should fast from seeing forbidden things; the heart should abstain from hatred and so on. It encourages us to control ourselves and our lust and, most importantly, to experience patience. All our past sins are forgiven during Ramadan".

The word Ramadan has Arabic roots, ramida or ar-ramad, often translated as dryness or scorching heat. But it does not always fall in summer. The calendar is dictated by the lunar system and always starts at the sighting of the new moon.

This year, the hours of fasting have been longer than had been the case for many years because, being summer, the time between sunrise and sunset are longer. This is definitely more challenging. In Malta particularly, the severe August heat has put several to the test. Pregnant, breastfeeding and menstruating women, children, the elderly or the infirm are excused from the daily fast. Those unable to fast for health reasons are instead expected to give money to feed the hungry.

If a Muslim is otherwise healthy, fasting is a must. Imam El Saadi explained that to break the fast was considered a grievous sin and deserved a punishment by God.

He said that a person who broke the fast had to repent and make up for it either by fasting for two consecutive months for every day of fast broken or by feeding 60 needy people. Islam required its followers to help the less fortunate members of the community, especially during Ramadan.

One of the pillars of Islam, known as zakat, or wealth tax, demands that every Muslim has to give 2.5 per cent of his or her income to the needy, irrespective of faith, colour or race.

There is no equivalent of the Catholic confession: if Muslims break the fast they know what to do.

"People only come to me if they need guidance on how to atone. But it's important to note that fasting is a manifestation of love towards God and thanksgiving; we do it with happiness," the Imam said.

It may seem curious in the context of fasting to speak of celebration and joy rather than suffering and endurance but, according to the Imam, many Muslims look forward to Ramadan. Even many who are not particularly religiously observant throughout the year choose to observe this communal fast.

Do the irregular hours of eating affect a Muslim's work performance?

"It shouldn't really. There is this modern tendency of people staying up all night socialising. Well, that is against the spirit of Ramadan. Ramadan advocates moderate eating and drinking. Shortcomings at work occur when this is not followed."

The Imam is interrupted by the ringing phone: a woman asking to get married that evening. He explained this was a common occurrence and during Ramadan there was an increase in marriages. Islam did not permit sex outside marriage, so people wanted to legalise their position because they did not want to fast in sin.

He recalled an instance, a few years back, when he was woken up by loud knocking at 11 at night. He opened the door to find a couple with two witnesses in tow; they couldn't wait to get married and he had to officiate at all costs.

Imam El Saadi does not actively encourage mixed marriages be-cause the difference in mentality, faith and habits created problems that inevitably led to broken marriages. He said there were successful mixed marriages but these were very few.

He was full of praise for Maltese society, which, he said, was generous and tolerant. "Because of this I believe God is protecting Malta from disasters and calamities".

Notwithstanding, a Moroccan lady, present at the mosque during Ramadan prayers, remarked that she would not dare wear the hijab (traditional tunic dress) when out and about because of racist comments.

The Imam claimed it was the few uneducated people who passed hurtful comments, such as: "Look at that woman, she's mad". He pointed out that even Christian nuns wore a habit.

"What I cannot understand is why nudity is permitted but decency is frowned upon? We are a secular society and everyone is free to practise their own faith."

Imam El Saadi came to Malta as a Palestinian refugee 30 years ago. He is all too aware that the influx of illegal immigration has created a kind of cultural and economic fear.

When it was pointed out that most immigrants were Muslim, he said: "I feel shame. Those immigrants should be sheltered by Muslim countries and not by non-Muslim countries. But, unfortunately, because in that country Islamic values are not put to practice, they have to flee".

According to social anthropologist Ranier Fsadni, Muslims - simply by being Muslim - are believed to be a threat to the island's liberty.

"Behind that belief lies a combination of factors, including media misrepresentations, European missteps in foreign, cultural and immigration policies and missteps by Muslim polities and religious communities," Mr Fsadni said.

The incident of the group of Muslims who caused a furore because they started meeting for prayers on the Sliema Front is one such example. The group's spiritual leader, Badi Zina, confirmed that because they had no place and the Paola mosque was too far away, the group was still congregating on the Front every Friday but the members had not been subjected to any harassment or comments again.

When asked whether his mosque was meeting the needs of the Muslim community, Imam El Saadi paused and mulled over his words before he said: "It seems the Islamic community in Malta needs more places of worship. They are praying in the street to attract attention to this need".

At the end of the day, the Imam said, Ramadan should make everyone reflect on the fact everyone was equal: "We are all immigrants because we are living in a land which does not belong to us: it's the land of God."

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