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Originally published Friday, July 20, 2012 at 5:18 PM

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Ramadan: a yearly gift of faith, fasting and self-assessment

The 30-day fast provides Muslims an opportunity to seek forgiveness, self-purification and spiritual gain.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Ramadan began Friday for Muslims worldwide.

The 30-day fast provides an annual opportunity to be extra thankful for God's countless blessings, obtain forgiveness for past sins and earn His promised reward.

While fasting as a spiritual exercise has largely vanished from many religious practices, Ramadan for Muslims has remained the same practice for more than 1,400 years.

The lunar calendar has shifted Ramadan into summer, bringing sun, humidity and heat during the time from dawn to sunset that local Muslims abstain each day from food, drink and physical pleasures.

For anyone, enduring hunger pains can be a noble moral reminder of the millions of people around the world, including some in America, who are suffering from hunger.

I call Ramadan "the gift" that returns each year, calling for Muslims to exercise self-control, eat less, pray more and be additionally generous to the poor — a way of life that should really be practiced all year.

We are all creatures of habit, and for me Ramadan brings an anticipated break from life's daily routine. It's a pathway for me to reassess my life, transform myself and use self-control to achieve a spiritual gain.

There are myriad benefits, as fasting brings a holistic change in my life — mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually — helping me achieve serenity and peace with the Creator.

My digestive system finally gets a rest. I achieve greater mental clarity and by Ramadan's end, I'm physically lighter, with an inner spiritual stillness that is indescribable.

It's our holiest time of year, so good deeds and actions bring an even higher reward during this month. Because all our sins can be forgiven, the gates of paradise are said to be open.

Yes, the promised reward of paradise is on every Muslim's mind during Ramadan, but it's not 72 virgins. That is an untrue statement that hurts Muslims and insults God every time it's repeated.

God describes paradise in the Quran as what no eyes have ever seen nor ears have ever heard, beyond our imagination and comprehension, and He offers small bits of alluring imagery.

He further describes paradise as a place of permanent joy where you will never feel miserable. The greeting is peace and there is no hatred, resentment, sickness, pain or sadness, and you never die.

It's so vast; there are hundreds of levels depending on your degree of belief, deeds and righteousness. Palaces and castles are made of alternating bricks of gold, silver, rubies and pearl.

There is soil of saffron and lofty dark-green gardens, shaded, where fountains are scented with camphor and ginger; rivers of pure water, milk, honey and delicious fruits without thorns.

Yes, images of paradise are never absent from those who fast. Ramadan is a reminder that life's ultimate goal is to please the Creator, whose promised reward will be measured by our actions and deeds.

While fasting was prescribed by God to all the Abrahamic faiths throughout time, for Muslims, Ramadan is obligatory and ultimately serves as a reflection of who we are and what we value. Its self-purification cultivates precious values like generosity, patience, kindness, empathy, forgiveness and mercy back to the forefront of our lives — values that benefit our society.

Aziz Junejo is host of "Focus on Islam," a weekly cable-television show, and a frequent speaker on Islam. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com

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