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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Mohmmad Jbailat, right, and Abdifatah Mohmmad pose Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 outside the Kadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley.
Religion is not about how can I make it fit into my life, my needs and my preferences. It is the opposite. —Rabbi Benny Zippel

WEST VALLEY CITY — On Aug. 19, Mohmmad Jbailat will have fasted for 29 days, a pillar of his Islamic faith and an opportunity to show his devotion to God, develop charity toward others and instill confidence within himself to resist temptation.

But Ramadan is not the only specified time in the Islamic year he can forgo food and drink from dawn until dusk. Following the month-long and well-publicized Ramadan fast is the month of Shawwal, during which Jbailat can choose an additional six days to fast. That's in addition to the two days a week and the three other days per month he can fast. All told, an observant Muslim can fast roughly one-third of the year.

"It challenges you on how much you can control yourself," Jbailat says energetically, despite having not eaten for 9 hours on an afternoon that feels like 90 degrees both outside and inside the Khadeeja Islamic Center mosque.

Fasting is practiced in many faiths, but its observance during Ramadan has received heightened attention this year as the annual month-long fast for Muslims around the world coincides with the Summer Olympics in London, where some 3,000 Muslims are competing while finding a way to comply with one of the five pillars of their faith. That attention has also shined a light on a curious aspect of religion more generally — that many people of faith are drawn to belief systems that expect followers to sacrifice and obey as a way to live and get closer to God.

"It makes it more credible. If you ask for nothing (from your followers) it doesn't sound like it is worth much," said Rodney Stark, a Baylor University sociologist whose groundbreaking book with Roger Finke, "The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy," found that in America's religious history, faiths that exacted a cost to belong grew, while those that were "cheap" or "free" faltered.

In their examination of religion as a commodity, they found the market share of churchgoers fell dramatically for mainline Protestant faiths from 1940-2000, as those faiths became more accommodating and less demanding of followers. At the same time, evangelical and other churches that were higher cost in terms of commitment grew — some by more than 1,000 percent.

A higher purpose

In Islam, one of the costs of belonging is Ramadan, an entire month in which observant Muslims begin the day at dawn with prayers and a meal, then do not eat or drink until sundown, when they break their fast with prayers and a meal.

For Jbailat, the meaning of Ramadan changes and deepens each year. It has always made him more empathetic toward those who suffer and reach out to others, he said. But this year, it has instilled in him a sense of urgency to pass along his Islamic heritage to his children, ages 15 and 7. He says he and his wife are training their young daughter in the rudiments of fasting and his teenage son is sorting out the purpose and meaning of Ramadan.

Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar, the imam who leads the Islamic Center of Greater Salt Lake, explained that Ramadan is a month of spiritual and physical conditioning for the remainder of the year, a time to overcome sin, to stop gossiping and become more charitable.

"It is the turnkey for the remaining 11 months," he said. "If you can't rectify yourself during this month, it will become more difficult and challenging for you the rest of year."

As a Muslim matures, Ramadan becomes less about not eating and more about what one can do for God, Mehtar said.

That evolution toward understanding a higher purpose for sacrificing to obey religious laws and codes of conduct is common to many faiths.

"Religion is not about how can I make it fit into my life, my needs and my preferences. It is the opposite," said Rabbi Benny Zippel, executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah. "Instead, it's how can I make my life fit into the religion."

He explained that Judaism's traditions, dietary, dress and conduct codes are to help someone who is finite and confined to time and space live in a godly fashion and have a relationship with an infinite creator. When people figure out that they can make changes so that their lives revolve around their faith, "they experience what I call that 'ah ha' moment. 'Now I got it.'

"It becomes very empowering," Zippel said.

Stark explained that people typically value things according to what they cost, and religion is no different. "People are not looking for the cheapest, but for the best value, and that's usually not the cheapest," he said.

Stark and Finke's book chronicles the growth and decline of mainline Protestant faiths and the Catholic Church in America from the late 18th century into the mid-2000s. They found that when a denomination became too accommodating to social norms and asked less of its members, participation dropped off. At the same time, the religions that grew were those that maintained their distinction by asking more of their members.

"We should be clear, however, that these high costs and clear boundaries are only possible when religions are based on beliefs in an exclusive God, active in the lives of the people," Finke and Stark wrote. "When religions conceive of God as distant, impersonal and unresponsive, it is hard to justify why anyone should make significant sacrifices for their faith."

As an example, they cite The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which calls its members to serve in a wide range of assignments within the local congregation. "Such callings are taken seriously when the God is personal, responsive and promises much in return," they wrote.

Ray Huntington, a professor of ancient scripture at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, said a primary tenet of the Mormon faith is that when you serve others you are serving God.

"You can look at all the surface reasons for why (LDS Church) members get involved — community, enjoyment, relationships and associations. But at the end of day it is about loving God and serving in his kingdom," Huntington said. "Sometimes it takes people time to reach that deep level of motivation."

He added that the belief that how one lives his or her life on earth will determine their state of happiness in the afterlife is another primal motivation for people to seek out a faith that will help them achieve that.

The reward

As a crowd gathers inside a small mosque in South Salt Lake on Tuesday at dusk, Jbailat serves up lentil soup and dates to those ready to break their fast. The quiet conversation among those who have gathered for the nightly event during Ramadan is interrupted by a call to prayer.

About 30 men and boys gradually fall into two lines, go to their knees and bow in prayer recited in Arabic. The women participate in another area of the mosque separated by a curtain.

Following the prayer, an eclectic buffet of goat meat, chicken, rice, pastries filled with a fish or chicken mixture, scones and bottled water or tea is served. The pot-luck meal is provided by congregants who hail from Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe and the United States.

Prayers and another meal will be served at dawn, and the fast will begin for another day. Following the dawn meal, Jbailat will help clean up, then go home to catch a couple of hours of sleep before work. He also takes a late afternoon nap if possible.

"Depending on one's job, you have to be smart about it," he said of finding ways to observe Ramadan and keep up with the demands of work and family.

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Jbailat boxes up two meals of food left over from the evening meal to take to the neighbors across the street from the mosque. While he makes his way to the door, he explains that another reason he observes Ramadan is the reward he believes he will receive in the afterlife for being obedient to God and charitable to others.

"We are transient and passing through this life, and we have to accomplish as much as we can before going into the next life, which is heaven," he said the day before at the mosque in West Valley City.

But he smiles, shakes his head indicating he's not completely satisfied that he has clearly articulated how fasting during Ramadan makes him feel fulfilled.

"Talking about it is not enough," he says. "It's very hard to give you the true picture of Ramadan without experiencing it yourself."

email: mbrown@desnews.com