Fast-a-thon honors Ramadan

The UH Muslim Students Association raised awareness of the Islamic month of Ramadan and world hunger Monday through its seventh annual Fast-a-thon.

During Ramadan, Muslims around the world abstain from food, drink and other physical needs from dusk to dawn in order to remember the poor and to focus on purifying the soul.

‘Hunger is a global issue rather than a religious one. It’s everyone’s obligation to help feed the hungry, and through this event we hope to bring everyone together for a common purpose,’ Fast-a-thon coordinator Maheen Siddiqui said.

Each year, the Muslim Students Association asks non-Muslims to pledge to fast for a day. At the end of the day, participants are invited to a large dinner where everyone breaks their fasts. For every pledge, local businesses donate $1 to a local charity organization.

This year, the Muslim Students Association chose to give the donations to Target Hunger, an organization that fights starvation in Houston’s inner-city neighborhoods.

‘We chose (Target Hunger) because of their focus on the local hunger problem,’ Siddiqui said. ‘In Islam, we are asked to help the people closest to us first before we focus on the global problem.’

The Muslim Student Association obtained more than 400 pledges from students, professors and student organizations on campus.

The experience of participating in Fast-a-thon is educational for some students. Biology senior Elvy Sotomayor decided to attend the event with her Muslim friends.

‘Some of my closest friends are Muslim and I knew that they fasted during the month of Ramadan, so I wanted to better understand their experience,’ Sotomayor said. ‘I knew that by participating I would have a chance to learn about their faith and ask questions that would help me understand the purpose of Ramadan and why it’s so important for Muslims.’

In attendance for the dinner were Esa Parada, an Islamic speaker, and Charlotte Pennye, director of development at Target Hunger. Participants learned about the principles of ‘sawm,’ the Arabic word for fasting, and its significance.

‘Sawm is more than simply abstaining from food and drink. Muslims are called upon to reflect on their lives, strengthen their family ties, reach out to their friends and make peace with those who have wronged them,’ Siddiqui said.

Although Fast-a-thon is usually held during the month of Ramadan, this year’s event had to be pushed back further due to logistical reasons, Siddiqui said.

Muslims follow the lunar calendar, which means Ramadan occurs earlier in the Julian calendar – commonly known as the western calendar – every year. This year, Ramadan was observed at the end of August and extended into September.

There are exceptions to who is obligated to fast. For instance, fasting is not obligatory for people who are traveling, the ill and those who have not reached the age of puberty.

One notable Muslim who observed Ramadan during extenuating circumstances was Hakeem Olajuwon, who was known to fast even when Ramadan occurred during the basketball season.

‘It’s not an easy thing to do, so I admire my friends for their strong willpower,’ Sotomayor said.

The idea of Fast-a-thon began after Sept. 11. Due to a rise in racial profiling against Muslims, there is a need to break up misconceptions about Islam and to share beliefs directly with non-Muslims instead of through the media, Siddiqui said.

According to the Muslim Students Association National Web site, more than 250 university campuses across the U.S. participated in Fast-a-thons last year.

At UH, about 300 people attend the dinner every year. In keeping with tradition, attendees break their fasts by each eating a date before they move on to various Mediterranean dishes. This year, the food came from the Saffron Persian Cafe.

‘The food is great and it’s for a good cause,’ Sotomayor said. ‘At the end of the day, you know you’ve done something worthwhile.’

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