Islam means submission.
Every day in hundreds of ways, a Muslim submits to the will of Allah, said Alimjan, of Kapisa Province, Afghanistan (like many Afghans,
Alimjan uses only one name). But it is during Ramadan that the faithful can truly give themselves up to Allah by following the guidance of the Prophet Mohammad.
People mill around a motorcycle shop on the first day of Ramadan next to the Mosque in Jan Qadam, a village in Parwan Province in Afghanistan.
The month of fasting and prayer is a time of worship and contemplation, Alimjan said. It is a time to cleanse one's soul, to reaffirm family ties and strengthen a sense of community. Neighborly affection is not always easy to come by in the war weary country, he said. A sense of unity is often found in at the village level, but rarely does a sense of nationality exist beyond that cluster of qalats, or homes.
Afghanistan's history of struggle and strife has forged for its often isolated, rural communities an unyielding culture focused on honor and dignity. Yet, during Ramadan the proud people from across the mountainous countryside come together to faithfully and humbly submit.
"We have many problems," Alimjan said. "All year, we have many things to worry about, many concerns that weigh heavy upon us. For this one month, we give it all up to Allah and we fast. Fasting is important to our health, our minds, our spirits."
Ramadan is the blessed month in which Allah revealed the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, explained Obidullah, who is also from Kapisa Province. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and is done from the first call to prayer at dawn to the last call to prayer after sunset. Fasting means no eating, no drinking, no smoking and no looking at women in a lusty manner. This can make those observing the holy month irritable at first, especially with the hot July temperatures pressing down on them.
Still, said Obdullah, one must keep the discomfort in proper perspective.
"It is not truly hard for us because we are Muslim and our Prophet says this is what we are to do," he said. "For 11 months we are eating and drinking anything we want. For one month we are asked to forgo our pleasures, to be still and listen so that we might grow closer to Allah and closer to our brothers. It is a time to think about the poor people who have nothing to eat or drink. It is a time to learn compassion and empathy."
After sundown, the fast can be broken with fresh figs and hot water, Obdullah said, but even then it is an exercise in moderation because there is only a half hour period during which to eat and drink. Work schedules and daily routines are adjusted to compensate for the flagging energy and weariness that often accompanies the first few days of fasting, he said.
At the end of the month, the holiday Eid ul-Fitr is celebrated with a feast and many greetings and good wishes. New clothes are worn and families visit one another, offering respect and salutations especially to the elders.
"We offer each other the hope of happiness," said Obdullah. "We reaffirm our faith and share in peace. Islam is peace, it is submission."