wayne-rawlins_web.jpgWayne Rawlins cherishes the serenity he feels as he waits for the sun to set; it fills him with a sense of piety and oneness with the Creator.

Rawlins, of Miramar, is observing Ramadan, the annual Islamic month of fasting when Muslims worldwide abstain from earthly pleasures such as food, drink and smoking between sun-up and sundown.

He has joined 70,000 other Florida Muslims in observing the holy month.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of five “pillars” or requirements of Islam that include the profession of faith, or shahada, declaring there is no God but God and Muhammad was His prophet; fasting during Ramadan; giving to charity or zakat; and the annual pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj.

The observance began this year on Aug. 12 and ends around Sept. 11 with a festival called Eid-ul-Fitr.

For Rawlins, the experience of fasting is bittersweet: the strife in his country over his religion, the lessons of the month in restraint and submission to God’s will, and the difference in cultural perspectives on faith.

His experience is unique amongst American Muslims, especially so because of his heritage.

“I guess because of growing up in America as an African American I’m experiencing it very differently than people who immigrated here willingly,” Rawlings said. “We Americans adopted certain cultures; I say that plural because we take from a culture here and there, so I guess you can say there is a prism.”

Rawlins points to the camaraderie among the nation’s immigrant Muslims who tend to bond with those from their homelands. American converts don’t have that cultural luxury or familiarity with the religious “norms” of the season, just a spiritual understanding of the message of Ramadan: peace, empathy with those who are less fortunate and a renewal of commitment to God.

“For African Americans, we don’t have that cultural connection. One might think that the Muslims from Africa would have a natural bonding with the African Americans but that is not always the case,” he said. “Most African-American Muslims were not raised in a Muslim household; we have accepted Islam somewhere along our upbringing. It typically was not the religion of our parents. That is a very different prism that other Muslims that come to the United States have. I think we come with more of a vigor.”

Rawlins, who attends a mosque in Miami Gardens where the congregation tends to break their daily fast with an Asian meal of rice, [curried] goat and other delicacies not typical of a Southern, African-American cuisine, is doing something different this year. He is breaking his fast in the method of the Prophet Muhammad, with dates and a fluid, and then forgoing a large meal before prayers and bed time.

“I won’t eat a meal until morning before the sun rising; we will take some food then,” he said. One recent day’s meal was macaroni and cheese, chicken soup and water melon.

His reasons for not dining with his mostly Asian congregation?

“I wanted the spiritual atonements that go along with Ramadan; it’s to eat less, to speak less and to pray more, read more Qur’an,” Rawlins said. “This year I wanted the spiritual aspect of it all.”

Hamid al-Amin of Miami converted to Islam in 1992 while in prison and now devotes much of his time between looking for a job to helping the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA) perform civic deeds while spreading knowledge of Islam in America.

Al-Amin was reared in Miami in a Southern Baptist home with a slew of siblings, some of whom also have adopted the Islamic lifestyle. He said the change has morphed his life into something wholesome.

He does not notice a difference between his ethnicity as an African American and the ethnicities of other Muslims. What he does notice, he said, is societal pressure because of what he said was misinformation being circulated about his adopted faith.

“With the media and other people talking about Islam being a terrorist religion, everything you hear is negative. But that’s not true. If that were the case, I would not be Muslim. I don’t condone violence,” he said.

Like many Muslims, al-Amin is reminded of his duty and of the religious commandments during Ramadan.

“It teaches you restraint; it teaches you how to be patient and tolerant. There are so many, many things that help the individual spiritually, mentally and physically,” he said.

Sheikh Rafiq Mahdi, 55, the Imam or prayer leader of Masjid al-Iman in Fort Lauderdale, followed an intellectual path to Islam that involved spiritual exploration. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Mahdi grew up in a traditional Christian, African-American household whose members were devout church-goers.

The majority of his congregation are from elsewhere and the only difference in the Ramadan experience he can see between those who have been Muslims for generations and African Americans who have embraced the faith on their own lies in the fact that the Americans did not grow up with the cultural traditions associated with Ramadan. Those traditions may vary from country to country, he said.

Ramadan brings familiar feelings to Mahdi that he used to have during Christmas with his family.

“When I think back on it, it was a very good beginning for me and, when I fast in Ramadan, some of the feelings of warmth, of inclusiveness, of having a home, they come back,” he said.

Photo: Wayne Rawlins