Daily Herald: Muslim leaders using Ramadan to push anti-smoking message

For nearly 13 daylight hours during Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and other sensual pleasures.

Many Muslims use the Islamic holy month to temporarily give up a vice — smoking.

Now, three area Muslim organizations, including physicians groups, are urging smokers to kick the habit for good.

Ramadan began Sept. 13, per the Islamic lunar calendar, and will likely end Oct. 12 or soon thereafter with the sighting of the new moon.

“The idea is that addiction is broken a little bit through their willpower during that month,” said Shiraz Malik, executive director of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, which is based in Lombard. “It’s halfway on the road to where we want them to be. We want to basically take them down the other half of the road, which is quitting cold turkey.”

The groups are posting fliers and plan educational seminars about the health hazards of smoking and benefits of quitting at area mosques, Islamic schools and community centers. The message is targeted at the estimated 400,000 Muslims in Chicago and the suburbs.

That message is converting 49-year-old Tariq Khawaja of Lincolnwood from a 14-year smoking habit. Khawaja gave up cigarettes the second day of this Ramadan.

“The whole day when I was fasting, I did not feel any craving for smoking,” said Khawaja, publisher of the Urdu Times weekly newspaper, which circulates in Chicago and area suburbs. “And then I thought that if I can stay a whole day, let’s quit for the whole life then.”

Islamic perspective

Historic and contemporary Islamic scholars agree smoking should be viewed as “haraam,” or not permissible under Islamic law, similar to alcohol or gambling.

Yet unlike alcohol, smoking is not explicitly forbidden anywhere in the Quran, Islam’s holy text. That left room for ambiguity before the health hazards of smoking became apparent.

“Smoking in general is antithetical to the Islamic ideal of respect and care for one’s body,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Rehab said narcotics are also not explicitly banned in the Quran, but scholars agree on their prohibition for the same reason, that it is bad for the body.

Using religious motivations to change harmful societal behaviors is not new, said Tariq Cheema, executive director of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America based in Westmont.

The World Health Organization has in the past made a faith-based push to tackle smoking in the Eastern Mediterranean region. It consulted leading Islamic scholars on the dilemma and in 1988 published a ruling that “smoking is either completely prohibited or abhorrent to such a degree as to be prohibited.”

“This is just one way of extending the blessings of Ramadan throughout the year,” Cheema said. “We want to capitalize on (Ramadan) where everyone is more motivated to be more disciplined and more faithful.”

Faith and fasting are helping 27-year-old Genivieve Huston of Island Lake, an Irish-American convert to Islam, suppress her cigarette cravings. Huston has been smoking for about four years. She hankers to light up soon after breaking her daily fast.

“After I eat, I crave a cigarette,” she said. “The physical urge is still there. The discipline that it takes to fast all day long is helping me with cutting down, smoking less, and just rely more on my faith to get me through those heavy craving periods.”

Huston hopes to lick the habit by the end of Ramadan.

“I think they are one and the same — our spiritual health and physical health because everything in the Quran relates to both,” she said.

Tailor the message

Driving this anti-smoking campaign is a concern for societal health, officials said.

Leaders say smoking pervades the Muslim community, especially in South Asian and Mediterranean cultures where hookahs, chewing tobacco and cigarette smoking are not only socially accepted but believed to be harmless. It is this perception community leaders are trying to change.

“What we would like to see is smoking becoming less and less of an acceptable habit for the sake of individual smokers’ health, for their family and the environment,” Rehab said.

Mosques will play a role in spreading that message through sermons and forums.

It is a cause worth supporting, said Vaseem Iftekhar, an ex-smoker and president of Islamic Foundation North mosque in Libertyville.

“It is actually an obligation,” Iftekhar said. “Society ills are our ills.”

Iftekhar said the mosque conducts Sunday seminars on health topics, and smoking would be an issue to tackle in that forum. He doesn’t expect resistance from smokers.

“Most people realize that smoking is not a good thing,” he said. “It’s a matter of addiction. If (the campaign) encourages will power and provides a support mechanism to quit, it will be helpful to them. You can’t force them, but the message has to be clear.”

However, the heaviest anti-smoking push targets Islamic schools. Organizers hope to build resistance to smoking at a young age, and enlist youths as envoys to convince parents and grandparents to quit smoking.

“I don’t think there can be any better and powerful ambassadors for the parents than their children,” Cheema said. “It’s like the watchdogs at home kind of thing.”

The anti-smoking campaign will continue after Ramadan and likely become a long-term project in the community, Malik said.

“In the United States there are a lot of anti-smoking initiatives, but we would be remiss if we don’t admit that this is a problem within our own communities,” he said.

Copyright © 2007 Daily Herald