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God Squad: Celebrating Ramadan

I do not write enough about Islam or about Muslim spiritual life. To help correct my lacuna, I've decided not to let the holy Muslim month of Ramadan pass this year without sending along to all of you non-Muslim readers a brief essay about what I truly love about Ramadan, which began on July 10 and ends Aug. 9, or, more accurately, which begins on the first day of the month of Ramadan and ends on the 29th.

To my Muslim readers, I hope this will serve as a belated apology for my lack of focus on your noble religious traditions in the past, and my most sincere wishes for a "Ramadan Mubarak," a blessed Ramadan.

This is what I love about Ramadan:

FASTING Ramadan is a real fast. Lent has been, let us say, softened in its limitations for Catholics, and the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur is, well, just one day. Ramadan requires the pious Muslim to refrain from all food and liquids for about 18 hours a day, every day for a lunar month. It has been scorching hot in the Northeast, and for those observing Ramadan this has meant hot days with no water. Sacrifice in performing religious rituals is not that common, but Ramadan sets a very high bar and it is very impressive to me.

CHARITY All religions include charity as a very high religious commandment, but during Ramadan, Muslims really give charity at very high levels. It is called zakat and, like fasting on Ramadan, it is one of the five central pillars of Islam (Shia Islam has 12 pillars). The other central pillars are the confession of faith (shahadah), praying five times a day (salat) and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime (hajj).

A Muslim must give at least 2.5 percent of his or her annual income (before taxes) to charity. One is also encouraged to give far more. The extra is not called zakat but sedaka, which is exactly the same word as charity in Judaism. The pilgrimage/hajj is also the same as the Hebrew word for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (hag).

During Ramadan, one's gifts of charity must be given immediately and must help the needy in one's community. In our secular world, charity is considered to be a good thing people do that they do not really have to do. It is something sort of above and beyond the call of duty. I love the fact that in Islam, and during Ramadan in particular, charity is a duty. Faith is linked to right action, not just right belief. We could all learn from Muslim practice of zakat during Ramadan.

PRAYER AND STUDY OF THE QURAN Some Muslims participate in a wonderful ritual of dividing up the Quran into 30 sections and along with special prayers reading one of the sections every day of the month. It takes me, and other Jews, one year just to complete the reading of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

This Muslim practice reminds us all that we are formed as religious communities by rituals and traditions but at the heart of all sacred life are sacred texts. They are our roots and our spiritual compass. Study helps us not only to reconnect to our sacred literature but also to begin the important task of sifting through these texts in order to determine which ones bring us into loving contact with the world and our own best selves and which texts are best left for another day and another time.

IFTAR AND EID Muslims rise before dawn during the month of Ramadan so that they can eat a meal called suhoor that will give them enough sustenance to carry them through a long day. Then, at sunset, families and friends gather to eat a meal called iftar.

I love iftar because it uses the abstinence from food and community to reinforce the bonds of community eating together every night. This is so much more than just a single Easter meal or Passover meal. Every day, friends and family and strangers come together to solidify the bonds of faith and fellowship. Then, at the end of the month, a truly belly-busting, soul-nourishing feast ends the sacrificial and penitential month.

This feast is called Eid ul Fitr, and is lavish and joyous. In many Muslim countries, the Eid is a two- or three-day holiday. The Eid ul Fitr is a way of celebrating continuity and confidence, gratitude and generosity, piety and purpose. I think it is one of the great religious meals on Earth, and it is one of the many things I love about Ramadan.

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