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U.S., British Initiatives Offer Non-Muslims A 'Taste' Of The Ramadan Experience

Ramadan is fast approaching, and Muslims around the world will soon begin observing the annual fasting month. In Western countries in which Muslims are the minority, it can also be a time to raise awareness of Islam. RFE/RL looks at two projects that are encouraging non-Muslims to get a "taste" of Ramadan -- and raise money for charity, too.

Prague, 13 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Sanjana Ahmad says her classmates were often curious when she fasted for Ramadan.

Now, Ahmad, a student from Tennessee, helps organize the Ramadan Fast-a-Thon. That's a nationwide initiative that encourages non-Muslim students in the United States to fast for a day and raise money for local charities that benefit the homeless.

"People really like the event. It's become a tradition on my campus," Ahmad explains. "It's a good experience for them to try to fast, to see what it's like to go a whole day without coffee, or if they smoke, to go without cigarettes, or to try and be a good person in general, not to get angry at somebody. So it's a good spiritual experience for them, and they like the fast-breaking dinner we have at the end. We get local Muslims families to cater, so [the food] is a little more ethnic. All the people who fasted learn from each other and have fun."

Muslims observing Ramadan go without food, drink, tobacco, or sex between sunrise and sunset.

But, as Ahmad notes, Ramadan is about more than physical fasting. It's also a time for spiritual reflection, for doing good deeds and remembering those in need.
Muslims observing Ramadan go without food, drink, tobacco, or sex between sunrise and sunset.

Ahmad says the Fast-a-Thon has grown since it was first held at her university in 2001. This year, she says, some 120 universities are taking part, on 26 October.

The next day, on the other side of the Atlantic, people across the United Kingdom will participate in a similar project.

The Fasting to Remember project grew out of a wider initiative called Islamic Awareness Week, which, as its name suggests, aims to educate non-Muslims about Islam and the Muslim way of life.

"The main aim of this project is to increase awareness about fasting, about Ramadan and about Islam [among] non-Muslims," says Sulaiman Moolla, fund-raising officer for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, which has taken the project to Britain's universities. "We're telling them, 'This is what we do for a month. This is how we live our lives. Come and get a taste of it, and come and learn a bit more about Islam.'"

"When I ran it in Nottingham [University], there were a lot of non-Muslims that came to the event, and they were surprised. They didn't realize what it meant to fast, what it felt like," Moolla says. "They were pleased that the Islamic society had actually gone and looked for them and approached them and said, 'This is how Muslims lead their lives.' They were refreshed with the ideas that they got from the day."

Those who sign up for these initiatives only have to fast for one day -- not for an entire month, as Muslims are required to do.

Even so, it's not that easy, as one British student found out.

Paul Dunlop took part in last year's charity fast. He planned to get up early to eat before sunrise -- but he woke up too late: "By 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I was really feeling unwell, and I had to have some water.... It was interesting sitting in the library at the university and trying to concentrate on something, and [I] just [could] not, because there was an empty feeling [in my stomach].... Thankfully, the Muslims at university provided the breaking of the fast, a meal when the sun sets. When that came, I was so ecstatic about [being able] to eat."

Still, Dunlop says he feels he gained by the experience: "It made me feel like I was doing something important, and I've also gained a deeper spiritual awareness of who I am -- as well as the ability to realize that I just can't fast for 30 days!"

Dunlop says he plans to participate in the program again -- properly, this time.