Brenda Miray had questions. Islam answered them. Miray’s Puerto Rican heritage and Catholic school upbringing would suggest an allegiance to Catholicism but that was not the case. Miray was born and raised in St. Croix.
Catholic diocese statistics estimate 75 percent of Puerto Ricans are Roman Catholics, including many in Miray’s family. Still Miray had doubts.
Those nagging doubts about religion became full-on hostility after her mother’s passing in 2004. Miray was 15, angry with God and still filled with unanswered spiritual questions. These questions led her to Islam and eventually her questions began to subside. She converted to Islam after her 18th birthday.
“I did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people,” said Miray, now a 24-year-old University of Virgin Islands student who is majoring in early childhood education. “It just stuck with me. It made sense to me.”
Miray is one of many in the Islamic community who are observing Ramadan, the month of fasting, heightened reflection and devotion for Muslims who fast while seeking guidance and forgiveness. This reflection is even more intense during the last 10 days of Ramadan when Muslims await Laylat al-Qadr or the Night of Power.
Practicing Muslims use this month of Ramadan not only to fast but to pray, to reflect upon Islam and to meditate on the plight of the less fortunate.
Muslims believe the Night of Power is the anniversary of when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. They consider it the holiest night of the year.
The Prophet Muhammad did not mention exactly when the Night of Power would be, although most scholars believe it falls on one of the odd-numbered nights of the final 10 days of Ramadan, such as the 19th, 21st, 23rd, 25th, or 27th days of Ramadan, said Layla Dawood, a 22-year-old teacher at IQRA’ Academy, a private Muslim school on St. Croix. It is most widely believed to fall on the 27th day of Ramadan.
“The Quran says it is better than 1,000 months,” said Dawood, who was born and raised in St. Croix.
Raymond “Brother Sulyman” Francis, president of the St. Thomas mosque Masjid Nur, said Muslims observe this occasion with study, devotional readings and prayer – as the night’s holiness is believed to make it an optimal time for prayers to be answered and so worshippers strive to be especially observant during this period.
Miray, Francis and Dawood each said they participated in a spiritual retreat called I’tikaf, where they spend all 10 days in a mosque reading the Quran and praying.
Ramadan began July 9, and starts at the beginning of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Because Islam observes a lunar calendar, the official beginning and ending occurs at different dates based on visual sightings of the crescent moon, Francis said.
This annual observance is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month lasts 30 days ending on Aug. 7 or 8, depending on the moon.
During Ramadan, fasting is mandatory for adult Muslims, except those who are ill, traveling, pregnant, breastfeeding, diabetic or going through menstruation. Married adults also refrain from sex during the daylight hours of fasting.
Other requirements include five daily prayers and the recitation of the Quran in Tarawih prayers – or extra evening prayers. These prayers continue until the entire Quran has been recited by the end of the month.
Francis also practices sawm, or fasting, during the entire month. This means he may not eat or drink anything, including water, while the sun shines. Francis said Ramadan is also a good time for Muslims to “train” themselves to sustain fasting for health benefits outside of Ramadan.
“Fasting makes the individual more aware of people who are less fortunate than he is,” said Francis, a 70-year-old who was born and raised in St. Thomas. “There are people who don’t have food to eat who are suffering all over the world.”
Each day before dawn, Miray observes a pre-fast meal called suhoor. A short time before dawn, Francis begins fajr or the first prayer of the day. At sunset, Dawood prepares for iftar or the evening meal when Muslims break their fast.
Dawood said Ramadan is more about the appreciation for permissible activities and the promised blessings that come with them than lamenting over the many things Islam deems impermissible.
“I came across a quote that said ‘Ramadan is not a temporary increase of religious practice, it is a glimpse of what you are capable of doing every day,’” Dawood said. “Scholars say don’t let it be about thirst and hunger but achieving God’s consciousness.”
Francis has been a practicing Muslim for 40 years. His first experience with Islam came during a vacation to Senegal. A friend convinced him to accompany him to Touba, founded by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a mystic and religious leader who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism. Ahmadou Bamba is also the founder of Mouridism, a large Islamic Sufi order most prominent in Senegal and the Gambia.
Mourides consider Touba to be a holy city. Consumption of alcohol and tobacco, game playing, music and dancing are forbidden within the city limits. Activity within the city is limited to spiritual pursuits only, Francis said.
“I spent the whole day there. Everyone’s behavior there was very different coming from where I came from,” Francis said. “What I saw convinced me to take the shahada. I came home and decided it was time to become a Muslim.”
The shahada is an Islamic creed, which declares belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet.
Miray said after her initial conversion she thought fasting would be difficult during Ramadan but instead found it easy because she felt a “sense of community.”
“Ramadan is a time for refocusing and rejuvenation,” Miray said. “You try to isolate yourself, worship God and charge your spiritual battery.”