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The belly is empty, but the mind is full
As local Muslims prepare for Ramadan, they also prepare for a month of soul searching
Imam Bilal Ali is the prayer leader at the Gainesville Islamic Culture Center. Ramadan, which begins Tuesday, is a Muslim observance that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this time, Muslims fast from sunrise until sunset. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

For Muslims, Ramadan is more than just a month of fasting, it's a spiritual journey within one's self.

This journey is taken each year for one month - this year it begins Tuesday - and is a period of daily fasting from sunrise to sunset, ending with the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

"The Quran says fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may learn self-restraint," said Imam Bilal Ali, the prayer leader at the Gainesville Islamic Culture Center. "Muslims are not the only people (who) have fasted before; the people of Jesus fasted, the people of Moses fasted. Fasting is a way by which other human beings are in contact with other human beings because you have a lot of people that fast voluntarily."

Muslims pray five times a day, which is a practice that others can see. But Ali said fasting during Ramadan, which means not ingesting food and water during daylight, is much more personal.

"It is easy for someone to hide during prayer and pray to be seen," Ali said. "As Muslims, we pray five times a day, but do they do this when they are alone? Fasting is something between you and the creator."

Ali added that fasting is broken each day with dates and some sort of liquid, "then we make our prayer, our fourth prayer at night," he said.

Michael Walton, the assistant imam at the Gainesville Islamic Culture Center, said the monthlong fasting is a sacrifice.

"It's a sacrifice that you give up willingly for God," Walton said. "God said out of all the things that we do as believers is for our own benefit, but the fast in the month of Ramadan is for him. This is something that we give up that is good. Of course you want to give up what's bad, you want to do that all year.

"He said whoever does this ... he has a special reward for them. In the sight of God we want him to be pleased with us."

Children in the Muslim faith begin participating in Ramadan when they begin puberty, according to Ali.

Walton's two sons, Michael Walton Jr., 15, and Amin Adbul Aziz, 14, who attend North Hall High School, both practice the Muslim faith and will also participate in Ramadan this year.

Talib Middleton, a member of the mosque who lives in Cleveland, recently became Muslim and this is his first Ramadan.

"Every religion you can think of I have practiced and have studied," he said. "I was a neo-Nazi skinhead for 14 years and during a dream I woke up and changed ... I'm from White County and do fear retaliation, but my faith in Allah will keep me safe.

"I'm excited (about Ramadan) and I'm nervous. I'm a chef by trade so I think it will humble me and will allow me to realize and appreciate things in a way I never have."

Those who are physically unable to participate in fasting are expected to give back in other ways.

"You are to feed one that doesn't have much," said Dr. Rahim Gul, a family doctor at Gainesville Medical Center. "You feed one person two times. So there is another way of helping those who don't have."

Gul said the most powerful part of Ramadan is the willpower that people gain.

"Every human God tests; this is one of the tests," he said. "The best thing is the will power. Will power is needed in so many instances in human life. If you can resist the cold water and your sodas ... you are hungry and that is how we create the willpower."

And that willpower is what Ali hopes his fellow Muslims will follow during Ramadan because of the personal and spiritual benefits.

"It is said during the month of Ramadan that the gates of paradise are open and the gates of hell are closed and the devil is chained," he said. "So whatever the person does during the month of Ramadan, this is that person; this is their real self."


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