As Christians and Jews complete their holiday season, we Muslims began ours with the start Friday of Ramadan, the month during which Islam teaches that the Koran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Ramadan advances 10 days every year because of the Islamic calendar's lunar cycle. Muslims fast for 30 days during daylight hours, a time allocated to charging spiritual batteries, for taking a timeout from the fast lane, for getting to know more about one's creator, one's self and one another.
In the evenings, when it is time to break the day's fasting, Muslims are encouraged to share meals with friends and neighbors.
Yet when asked to present a display for Ramadan at a Los Angeles school, I found it difficult to explain to the teacher that there is no cultural display that exemplifies the meaning of fasting.
Ramadan remains a symbol-less holiday in America. I don't think a wreath made of date palm leaves would work. (We often eat dates first when we break our fast in the evenings.)
Living as an American Muslim creates interesting dilemmas. During my high school years in Tempe, Ariz., Ramadan fell during the summer months, which meant spurning swimming parties and barbecues. It did not matter much because the swimming was coed and the menus usually included pork--both of which I have to avoid as a Muslim.
But dealing with the dietary restrictions was always the easier challenge for me. When friends would ask why I wasn't eating, I said my parents were making me do so. Then I had to deal with another misconception about Muslims--tyrannical parents.
While living in the Los Angeles area the last 18 years, I realized the importance of fasting.
We live in a consumption-oriented society where self-gratification is the goal in virtually every circumstance. The spiritual focus is missing, which is why how-to books and classes on spiritual enhancement abound, filling the void that people feel.
For Muslims, Ramadan is, in effect, a 30-installment spiritual course paid for with our time. I realize that I can only fast for the purpose of serving God and helping myself. I can't imagine I'd be motivated to do it for any other reason.
Ramadan is a month void of earthly attachment, a period aiming to promote awareness of a higher meaning in life.
There is also one other remarkable aspect of this month. Its timing is not pegged to the birth of any person but rather the birth of a book, the Koran. Muslims are encouraged to read the whole book during Ramadan.
Last year at Ramadan, I noticed stories about basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets denying himself food and liquids while still managing to play at a professional level. I also heard about Muslim communities offering food for the homeless, or just sharing their experience of the fast.
Nice stories. But what I remember most when I tell others about Ramadan is their astonishment that we actually withstand the deprivation.
"You really don't eat or drink anything during the day?" I'm often asked.
Self-deprivation comes across as unfathomable to many. When I am not fasting, I identify with this amazement. Fasting is a jihad--struggle--for Muslims. But I believe that God wants us to realize the potential of human will power.
"Just say no" was Nancy Reagan's slogan against drugs. That message also applies to the month of Ramadan. And if one can learn from the exercise, he or she is a better person and a better citizen.
Does fasting alone guarantee good social skills in this life and paradise in the hereafter? No. Like everything else in life and religion, fasting is part of a package. To reach a state of social harmony and peace, people must first believe in a divine moral construct, from which all else flows.
Religion can be and has been used as a vehicle for war, but its real purpose is to be an instrument of peace and reconciliation.
Ramadan is something we can't show people; we can only try to explain. What it forces people to do, though, is to move away from thinking in terms of labels, to thinking in terms of ideas.
If that helps enrich American society, then I as a Muslim am proud to be a part of it.
Salam Al-Marayati is director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. This column was prepared for the Washington-based Religion News Service.