Image: Palestinian child plays with fireworks on the first day of Ramadan
Adel Hana  /  AP
A Palestinian child plays with fireworks on the first day of Ramadan at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Wednesday. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and smoking from sunrise to sunset.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/11/2010 11:45:00 AM ET 2010-08-11T15:45:00

More than a billion Muslims around the world began observing the holy month of Ramadan on Wednesday, with the dawn-to-dusk fast posing a particular challenge for the devout in the sweltering Middle East summer.

A heat wave has covered much of the region, putting even the most ardent believers to the test.

In some places — such as Egypt, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip — the hardship of abstaining from food, drink and cigarettes for 15 hours was compounded by frequent power outages.

"I'm not sure if I can continue fasting," lamented Ismail Abu-Hasweh, 28, standing in line at a government office in Amman, Jordan. "I'm a chain smoker and I feel lightheaded because I didn't smoke or drink my coffee," he added, removing dark sunglasses to show his red eyes.

Ali Shishi, 30, working in a downtown public garden in Damascus, Syria, said he planned to work a full shift. "My fasting will not be accepted by God if I quit my work," he said. But his manager told him just before noon he should stop working because it got too hot.

In Cairo, barber Mohammed Abdo said working and reading the Quran, the Muslim holy book, keeps his mind off his stomach.

By midday, temperatures reached the high 90s in degrees Fahrenheit, and even topped 100 in many parts of the Middle East.

'God knows best'
Some took steps to ease the burden of fasting in the heat.

The governments in Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories reduced the work day of civil servants from eight to six hours. Some construction workers in Lebanon struck deals with their employers to work for a few hours at night, instead of during the day.

In the United Arab Emirates, the top religious authority issued a religious edict, or fatwa, allowing laborers to eat if it is too hot or conditions are too difficult to fast. Religious officials issued the decision in response to a question from an oil rig worker.

"God does not burden any soul beyond what it can bear, and God knows best," the fatwa said.

In Cairo, Sheik Eid Abdel-Hamid, a preacher at the Al-Azhar Mosque, told the daily al-Gomhuria that those engaged in hard physical labor can break their fast and make up for it later.

In Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza, the clock was moved back an hour. This does not change the duration of the fast, but eases it by allowing people to break their fast earlier in the evenings.

Staggered start to Ramadan
The start of Ramadan changes every year, based on the sighting of the new moon at the start of the lunar month. The calculation can be a show of regional clout, with senior clerics across the conflicted Mideast and the two main sects of Islam often disagreeing.

This year, most Sunni Muslims began fasting Wednesday, while Shiite Muslims in Iran, Iraq and Oman are to begin observances Thursday. Lebanon's Shiites were split.

In flood-ravaged Pakistan, where the vast majority of the nation's population of 165 million are Muslim, the fast begins Thursday.

Floods triggered by heavy monsoon rain over much of the country began nearly two weeks ago, and have killed about 1,600 people and disrupted the lives of about 14 million, including about 2 million who have been forced from their homes.

Many survivors from flooded villages have lost their stores of food as well as crops in the field and livestock, and are surviving on occasional handouts, living in the open.

Naseer Somroo, who had just been evacuated on a navy boat from his flooded village in Sindh province, said he and his family were getting sick and had been hungry for days but his faith was unshakeable.

"We've already been fasting for four days ... We'll observe Ramadan but we don't know how our Eid will be," he said referring to Eid al-Fitr festival at the end of the month which is usually the most joyous holiday of the year.

Complications for relief efforts
As a massive international relief effort is gearing up to help the flood victims, aid workers fear that the traditional fasting ritual could endanger the health of people already facing food shortages, and complicate efforts to deliver assistance.

People only getting poor nutrition are not well placed to fast although abstaining from drinking water for much of the day could protect people from water-born diseases, said a doctor involved in the relief effort.

"Definitely, they are not in a good position to fast. The food they are taking is not enough," said the doctor, Ahmad Shadoul.

"On the other hand, fasting can be a preventive measure for diarrhea as people are not drinking water for 14 to 15 hours."

Working hours in many Muslim countries are shortened during the month when people fasting often suffer from a lack of energy.  So while aid agencies aim to continue working flat out, there are worries that the effort may flag.

"Traditionally people work 50 percent of their ability during Ramadan," said Ershad Karim, chief field officer for the U.N. Children's Fund based in northwest Pakistan.  "Of course, it will be a very challenging situation."

Giving to the poor
But Ramadan is also a time of heightened religious fervor and giving to the poor — aspects of the tradition that could ultimately prove helpful for flood survivors in Pakistan and those living in poverty in the Middle East.

In impoverished Hamas-ruled Gaza, where a majority of 1.5 million residents depend on food handouts, the Social Affairs Ministry planned to distribute food to 13,000 families of unemployed workers and prisoners held by Israel. The ministry said it also received 75,000 food parcels donated by charities abroad.

Egypt's ruling party, which faces parliamentary elections in a few months, announced it is distributing 1 million Ramadan gifts as an expression of social solidarity.

In Gaza, power outages were one of the biggest concerns during Ramadan.

In the worst periods, electricity is off for 12 hours, on for four, then off again for 12. The blackouts are caused by an overburdened grid, unrepaired damage from Israeli military offensives and a dispute between the Islamic militant Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank over who should pay for fuel for Gaza's only power plant.

Blackouts and 'very hot' conditions
Gaza housewife Tharwa Suboh said the power cuts make Ramadan observances very difficult because the family does not have a fuel-powered generator.

"It is very hot ... and now we are fasting, and don't even have power to run an electric fan," said the mother of five girls, ages nine to 16, who all observe Ramadan. She said she has to shop every day, instead of once a week, because she cannot refrigerate food.

"In our prayer, we will ask God for forgiveness, but also to take revenge against all the people who are behind our suffering due to the power cuts," said Suboh, 38.

Short blackouts have also been common in areas of Egypt, in part because of increased electricity consumption during the summer heat. The government has banned people from using public supply outlets to hang Ramadan ornaments.

Egyptian media said the electricity ministry has declared a state of emergency and plans to start up two new power stations to deal with the extra load during Ramadan. Consumption is expected to rise because people stay up into the night.

High-tech faith
But in North America, where many Muslims also mark the first day of Ramadan on Wednesday, electricity is the key, as high-tech applications are helping to enrich the observance of their faith during Ramadan and beyond.

Cell phone applications such as "iPray" or "iQuran" offer a beeping reminder of requisite prayer times, while the "Find Mecca" and "mosque finder" programs help the Muslim traveler in an unfamiliar city find the nearest place to pray.

The first time Edgewater, N.J., resident Sumeyye Kalyoncu, 24, heard the Adhan — or call to prayer — through surround-sound speakers on her iPhone dock, she was overcome with nostalgia for her native Turkey. Such applications are especially popular in the United States, Kalyoncu said, as U.S. mosques do not broadcast daily calls to prayer from external loudspeakers, as they do in Muslim countries.

James Otun, who has several Islamic applications on his Apple iPhone and iPad, said his favorite application, called Find Mecca, is a compass-like program with an electronic indicator that changes from red to green when you've reached the requisite prayer angle of 58-degrees, Northeast, to ensure you're facing Mecca from any location — a requirement of all Muslims when praying.

Otun said he was amazed to see an image of Mecca on his cell phone screen for the first time, and to realize he could carry a library of religious texts with him everywhere.  "iPhone makes you emotional," he said. "I can't carry 10,000 pages of books, now, you have it in your phone — it's priceless."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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