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Ramadan month celebrated with prayer, fasting

By Hadas Ragolsky, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday November 17, 2001

Osama Saied, treasurer of the Berkeley Masjid Foundation, the only mosque in the city, fasted during Ramadan for the first time when he was a 10-year-old boy in Egypt.  

“It was the first day of Ramadan and I was sent to buy bread,” he recalled. “It smelled so good that I had to eat a piece, five minutes before the fast was over.” 

Since than, Saied, a devout Muslim, has fasted every year during Ramadan, one of the two holiest holidays for Muslims. 

Thursday, he was waiting along with the rest of his congregation for the Islamic Society of North America to declare the beginning of the holiday. This is done by confirming the sighting of the crescent moon, a report than can be made by any believer. The society’s Web site says that such reports will be accepted “as long as such a report does not contradict indisputable astronomical information.” 

The crescent moon was sighted on Friday. 

Muslims will fast from dawn until sunset for a month. During this time period every day, eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activities are prohibited. In addition to the regular five daily prayers, Muslims offer eight to 20 Taraweeh prayers each night. They also read the entire Quran during the month of Ramadan.  

“In this month you train yourself to avoid anything that is considered to be a sin,” said Saied. “It is a process of improvement, an opportunity to tune into yourself.” 

Saied said that there is no reduction in work productivity during Ramadan. 

“Back home, people are trained to fast from the time they are kids,” he said. “Even farmers who work 12 to 14 hours a day fast.” 

The Berkeley Muslim community purchased its own mosque three years ago, on a site previously owned by a Buddhist group. Less than a month ago, the last revision of the renovation plans was authorized; the work is expected to last at least six months. In the meantime, Friday prayers are held at the YWCA on Bancroft Way. The Taraweeh prayers will be held every evening at a rented location at 2632 San Pablo Ave.  

Saied estimated the number of Muslims in Berkeley at around 500 people.  

“Berkeley is a transient city,” he said. “People come and leave after they finish their studies.” 

Less than 25 percent of the congregation is part of what Saied called the “established community.” The rest are students. Among the permanent members, 40 percent are Indo-Pakistani, 40 percent are Arab and 20 percent are Afro-American, Indonesian and others. In the Bay Area, there are around 200,000 to 250,000 Muslims and at least 30 mosques.  

The Berkeley Masjid Foundation doesn’t have its own Imam, a spiritual leader.  

“The majority of the mosques in North America are based on first generation,” said Saied. Usually the first generation in a new country will not raise a spiritual leader because it is made up of “engineers, doctors or even taxi drivers who wanted to educate their kids about the religion,” Saied said. 

Saied said the first generation only volunteers to maintain the mosques while working to support their families. 

“Maybe next generation will have people who are devoted 100 percent for worship and not based on volunteers like us,” he said.  

Saied doesn’t think more people will attend the prayers this year after the September 11 attacks. “If more people will come it is because of the growth of population and not because of the events,” he said. Saied said the majority of Muslims do not believe that the September 11 attacks were committed by true Muslims. “In our religion there are rules when you can accuse someone. We didn’t get any proof yet that it was committed by Muslims.” 

This is the year 1422 for the Muslim calendar. Since it is counted according to the moon, the Muslim calendar varies from the widely-used Gregorian calendar, which is based on the sun. Each year Ramadan is celebrated in a different Gregorian month.  

The UC Berkeley Muslim students will join the evening prayers at the temporary mosque at YWCA.  

“It’s the first time Ramadan is entirely during the academic year,” said Nadia Yousef from the Muslim Students Association on the UC Berkeley campus. Yousef and at least 300 others will have to fast during the exams. “It will be hard but we are looking forward to it,” she said. “It’s a very enjoyable time with lots of spiritual benefits.”  

The students will conduct their own afternoon prayers on the third floor of the MLK Student Union building for the convenience of the students. 

“The prayers this year will serve other purposes, purposes of unity and comfort,” Yousef said.