Heat wave challenges Muslims as Ramadan nears its end
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - When Shareef Ghaly is hammering nails into window frames under a scorching sun in the midst of a historic Texas heat wave, he's doing it for his career.
And Harvard linebacker Zakareya Aossey practices in the heat with no complaints, all for love of the game.
But a stronger conviction leads these two Muslims to suffer through it with no water or food as they near the end of the holy month of Ramadan in one of the hottest U.S. summers on record, when the days stretch past 13 hours and regularly top 100 degrees.
"If this continues, I'm going to have to move somewhere cooler," said a chuckling Ghaly, who owns Diamondback Renovations and Painting in Austin.
The Muslim month of fasting, a time for believers to atone for sins, refocus their faith and get closer to God, ends next week. Millions of Muslims across the world abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours as ordered by their faith.
They also try to avoid anger, focusing on faith, humility, compassion and the plight of people so poor and needy that "they can't choose to break their fast," said Muna Hussaini, 32, an Austin mother and program manager in the tech industry.
"When I am fasting, life comes into perspective," Hussaini said. "I have to focus on getting through the day, living my life, and praying. Fasting humbles you into appreciating all you've been given and is a great way to become grounded, to know what life is really about."
Fasting Muslims will wake up before dawn, eat a healthy meal and hydrate. When the sun goes down, they break the fast and pray with their families or the community.
Ramadan, which began around August 2, is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and comes progressively earlier each calendar year. Next year, it will start in late July.
Younger people like Ghaly, 36, who started fasting at age 20, have never seen a Ramadan so hot and with such long fasting hours as this one. At first, he said, Ramadan fell in December, when the daylight lasted about 10 hours.
"By the time I got thirsty, it was time to break my fast," he said. "It was a piece of cake back then."
These days, he tries to schedule his outside jobs before Ramadan starts. This month, he and his crew had some brickwork and exterior windows to do. They keep wet towels nearby to cool off and set up canopies and tents when they can.
"Working outside around 1 or 2 p.m., you really start to get thirsty," he said, "It's like you're waiting for that minute where you break your fast, so you can get that first cup of water, which tastes incredible."
Aossey, 19, is thankful to be practicing in Boston for most of Ramadan this year, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
When he was in high school in Austin two years ago, Ramadan started later in August and the coaches supported his choice to fast.
"They understand that religion comes first before everything, and safety is first before everything," he said, adding they happily accommodated his needs.
"If that's sitting out of a certain activity or rescheduling workouts, or if I needed to leave a meeting to break my fast ... they were always open and helpful."
Those who have been through a few Ramadans said fasting in the heat was a challenge. In many Muslim countries, working hours are shortened during Ramadan, and employers often provide special meals for those who need to break their fast at work.
In the United States, such practices are not the norm, although many Muslims said their employers were often accommodating to their needs. Not fasting due to the heat, or for other reasons, was not an option for many.
"It's obligatory," said Bilqist Banoo, 57, who spent much of her life in Pakistan. "It's not even a question. It's required of you, and it's not easily forgiven."
DATES AND WATER
At a recent community break-the-fast dinner in Austin, known as an iftar, Muslim men and women sat, separated by gender, in the shade waiting for the sun to set.
Bottles of water sat in front of them, and they carried small Styrofoam plates with a tiny bit of food so as to break the fast gently -- a few chick peas, some fruit and a date, the latter of which is traditionally eaten to break the fast.
When the sun set at 8:14 p.m., the women ate their dates, and then uncapped their waters and drank deeply. They all went to pray in the mosque, before gathering for a larger meal of rice, lentils and goat curry.
By the time the long dinner line formed in the dark, the cooler holding the water bottles was completely empty. Hussaini went in search for more.
She joked that taking care of people's water needs was yet another act of charity that fit the spirit of Ramadan.
"This," she said with a laugh as she gathered the bottles in her arms, "is what you call the bonus round."
Some Texas Muslims say the challenge of fasting through long hot days brings them closer to the Prophet Muhammad, who they say sought out the most challenging days to fast.
"Sometimes, the more difficult the test, the stronger you become," said Junayd Gerald Oliver, 28.
Ayla Saeed, 8, of Austin chose to fast for a little while on a recent day because she had seen her parents do it. Her strategy was simple.
"I tried not to run that much," she said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)
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