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Ramadan: the `great leveler' of the Muslim world. Believers share in duties of holy month, but some decry commercialization

Each evening for the past two and a half weeks the roar of cannons has thundered across Muslim neighborhoods throughout the Gulf. Unlike the artillery fire on the nearby Iran-Iraq war front, these cannon shots are a much-welcomed event. They signal the end of the day's religious fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Devout Muslims from all walks of life and in all regions of the world are this month fulfilling their religious duty to go without food or drink during daylight hours for each of the 29 days of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar, corresponding to April 17 through May 15 on the Gregorian calendar.

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They are following a routine established by the Prophet Muhammad himself more than 1,300 years ago and repeated by Muslims ever since.

But in the same way that many Christians bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, many Muslim scholars complain that the true meaning of Ramadan's month of fasting is being corrupted by wealthy Muslims who fast during the day but throw large parties with multicourse meals at night.

``We believe this is a deviation from the spirit of fasting,'' says Shaikh Nazam Yaquby, a respected scholar who leads the Friday prayer at Manama's Adliya Mosque. ``We think that according to the spirit of the month of Ramadan and the lessons meant for this month we should limit ourselves and not try to consume so much food during the night time.''

He adds, ``Ramadan is not a holiday, it is not a celebration. It is an obligation. It is a month of extra worship and prayer and supplication.''

Sales volumes at Gulf supermarkets have risen this month as families stock up for their evening meals. The increased food consumption is so significant that some Gulf governments order special shipments of sheep to meet the rising demand for fresh meat during Ramadan.

But not all of the food purchased this month is for personal consumption. An important aspect of Ramadan is helping to feed the needy, and much of the meat and other food purchased will be donated at special tables set up each night in neighborhood mosques.

Every year, the impact of Ramadan is unmistakable.

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In the Muslim states of the Gulf the daily routine is sharply altered during Ramadan as night seems to become day with workers and families rearranging their schedules to facilitate daily fasting.

To non-Muslim expatriates working in the Gulf, Ramadan is a time when Arab society seems to come to a grinding halt during the day. Shops, banks, and government offices close before noon and stay closed all afternoon. By late afternoon, the city's maze-like bazaar resembles more of a ghost town than the usual bustling marketplace. Streets are deserted as most Muslims remain at home in the hot afternoon to read the Koran or to sleep through the final hours of the fast.

Though it is no big challenge to most Muslims to last some 14 or more hours without food, it is considerably more difficult to last that period of time - from roughly 4:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. - without taking a single drink of water. This is particularly so with daily temperatures rising to 90 degrees F. and above.

``The first few days of Ramadan can be difficult but as you go along you don't notice it,'' says Ishaq Koohiji, a young Bahraini.

``Sometimes it is very difficult but as with everything it is the state of mind,'' says Yahya Merchant, who converted to Islam 21 years ago after serving in the British Army in South Yemen. He adds, ``On the personal level the fast is an exercise in self-discipline.''

In contrast to deserted streets during the day, traffic is heavy all night as shops reopen until midnight, and families flock to popular parks to picnic, play games, sing songs, or simply talk with friends. Others are invited to their friends' homes to share the main meal of the day served between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Each day, Muslims break their fast shortly after the Ramadan cannons boom at sunset. According to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad used to break his fast by eating three dates and drinking a glass of water. Some still follow this method. Others prefer a small bowl of soup. They then go to the mosque for the early evening prayer.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five duties or ``pillars'' of Islam. The others are the worship of one God, praying daily, paying an annual religious tax, and attending the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Ramadan is considered sacred because it is believed to be the month during which the Koran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. It is thought that the revelation began during the last 10 days of Ramadan, though no one is sure exactly when.

Fasting is seen as a means of helping men and women draw closer to God. And it is viewed as providing protection for the faithful in part by teaching self-restraint.

``We believe it is a good method of teaching ourselves not to be servants or slaves of certain physical desires or food,'' Shaikh Yaquby says.

Fasting also helps break down barriers within Islamic society, requiring wealthy and powerful Muslims to experience first hand the suffering of those less fortunate.

``It is a great leveler,'' says Mr. Merchant. ``All levels of society must fast. No matter who you are you have to do the same thing.''

He adds, ``It doesn't matter if you are the president of a nation or the poorest laborer. You both have to fast for the same period and are just as grateful for a drink of water at day's end.''

Not all Muslims are required to fast during Ramadan. According to the Koran, persons who are ill, pregnant women, and travelers are allowed to postpone their fasts provided they fast an equivalent number of days later in the year.

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