By Monday’s end, Muslims around the world and across Georgia will have begun the month-long observance of Ramadan. It commemorates the revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammed and for believers, it means fasting during the day, and eating and praying after the sun goes down.
On a Friday afternoon in June, Abdel Camara made a beeline for a coffee shop in Atlanta.
Ramadan was ten days away. And that meant one thing for the 28-year-old accountant originally from West Africa.
“I go on a caffeine detox to help me deal with the caffeine cravings during Ramadan,” he said, savoring his coffee
Abdel and some other Muslim friends are loading up on caffeine before heading to Friday prayers. They say coffee isn’t banned during Ramadan. But many Muslims find it hard to fit in the usual morning cup of joe.
Abdel’s friend, Hassaan Abouzeid, explains why.
“Come Ramadan, we start fasting at 5 a.m.,” he said. “But I wake up at 6:30 in the morning and I can’t get my coffee because I’m already fasting at this point.”
There are about 2.5 million Muslims in the U.S., and an estimated 80,000 here in Georgia.
The state’s Muslim community is a microcosm of the religion’s global footprint. There are Muslims in Georgia from the Middle East, West Africa, Eastern Europe and Pakistan. And there are native-born believers. The state is thought to be the site of one of North America’s earliest Muslim communities. It was founded by a West African slave in the 1800s on Sapelo Island.
Muslims follow the Lunar calendar. Right now in the summer, that means fasting from dawn until the sun sets, around 9 p.m. Abdel says that’s not easy.
“The days are long in the summer so you’re dealing with 14-hours days,” he said. “And it’s very hot in Atlanta.”
The all-day fast goes beyond food and drink, says Hassaan.
“While you’re fasting, you’re not allowed to drink, eat, no sex with your wife, none of that,” he said. “No smoking. So even if you smoke cigarettes, you’re not allowed to do that – until the sun is down. When the sun is down, you get to do whatever you want to do.”
Devout Muslims pray five times a day throughout the year. During Ramadan, they pray even more.
Nadim Ali is an Imam with the Community Masjid in Atlanta. In an interview at the masjid, or mosque, he said in Muslim-majority countries, the pace of life slows down during Ramadan. But that’s not the case in the U.S. where Muslims carry on with their jobs while keeping up an intense schedule of fasting and praying.
“It’s like going to the gym for your soul. That’s the bottom line,” he said, surrounded by books in Arabic.
But he says, Muslims aren’t meant to see it as a burden. He says the month is a time to take stock, and the spiritual equivalent of a cleanse.
“Basically, it’s like when the trees shed their leaves,” he said. “Ramadan is a time for you to shed the badness, or the sins you’ve maybe picked up over the year.”
It’s not all sacrifice, however. Ramadan is a social time of the year for Muslims around the world. They break their fast with an evening meal called the iftar that can be quite elaborate, especially in the Middle East.
“It’s become the custom to go and tour the nicest hotels and the nicest restaurants for the big Ramadan feasts,” says Abbas Barzegar, a Georgia State University Professor of Islamic Studies.
He says in the Middle East, the atmosphere is somewhat like the Christmas season in the U.S., with lavish dining.
“There are huge buffets where you can pay $50 or $60 a ticket, and eat your heart out all night,” he said in a telephone interview.
Abdel Camara, the Atlanta accountant, confirmed it was a time to visit with friends and feast.
“It’s just a big time to socialize,” he said, as he greeted friends after attending services back in June.
“You see people you haven’t seen in such a long time. Every day is like this. So every day is like Easter, literally,” he said.
Muslims will be celebrating Ramadan until the second week of August.
GPB Reporter Jeanne Bonner will be covering Ramadan for the next month. Follow her on Twitter at @bonnerjeanne and visit GPB.org to see her stories, photos and for extended interviews.