SAN FRANCISCO — As men and women in makeshift togas danced and jumped to booming house music, Omar Younis made out with a woman he had met just a few hours earlier at her 25th-birthday dinner.
A friend of a friend, the woman was Younis' fixation of the night. He had accompanied her from the restaurant to a karaoke bar — where he promised to get up and sing just for her but never did — and was now at a San Francisco nightclub, hoping to end the night with her. As make-believe Romans danced in the dimly lit club, Younis and the woman, an aspiring actress, kissed in various alcoves as his friends watched with amusement.
"Take note, he's a player," friend Geraldine Calbimonte had said earlier at the karaoke bar. When Younis frowned at her, she added quickly: "Just kidding, just kidding."
At the bar, Younis, a 27-year-old with Middle Eastern good looks, had been drinking a vodka and cranberry, followed by swigs from a beer. At the club, he ordered a drink for himself and finished off his date's brew. Ken Maxey, another friend, mused that no one watching Younis now would guess he was a Muslim.
Indeed, the lively club scene seemed a long way from Younis' upbringing in an observant Muslim home in a Cleveland suburb, where his parents were principals of a weekend Islamic school and he won a Koran memorization contest. Because of his religious beliefs, Younis did not attend dances in high school.
Islamic practice doesn't play a significant role in Younis' day-to-day life now, but when Ramadan began this week, he, like other Muslims, began abstaining from eating and drinking during the day.
The Barnes & Noble mobile interaction designer said he would also swear off drinking alcohol, smoking pot and socializing with women during the holy month, and would avoid bars and clubs. He planned to spend most nights at home, alone, breaking his fast the traditional way, with a few dates — the fruit, not the females.
Ramadan remains sacred even for many Muslims like Younis, who don't practice their religion on a daily basis and bend, or break, many of its rules. For some, observance of the holy month is the only religious ritual they still follow.
"I know that Ramadan is a (basis) of forgiveness, I use that literally to cleanse my soul and I feel if I was to bypass it, that would be tragic," he said. "I feel that Ramadan is a gift for me and to other Muslims, and it would be like refusing a gift from God."
Zareena Grewal, a professor of American and religious studies at Yale, likened these Muslims to Islam's version of Christmas Christians. During the month, mosques teem with congregants, some of whom haven't been there since the previous Ramadan.
Grewal, who grew up in the United States but has lived across the Middle East and Pakistan, said most Muslims worldwide probably don't pray five times a day but wouldn't think of spurning Ramadan. The repentant quality of the month has made it the one act of worship they observe, she said, and in Muslim countries or communities where everyone is fasting, not doing so can paint one as an outcast.
"If you're not fasting you're just seen as a buzz kill, you're bringing down the mood, this is the holiday season," she said.
Younis' evolution from pious to party boy was gradual. He said he wishes he could practice his religion fully and blames outside influences, like a stone slowly eroding under rushing water.
The middle child of five, Younis grew up in an Iraqi American family where Arabic was spoken at home and his parents were liberal and loving. When his father, a college professor, became too busy to run the weekend Islamic school, Younis' late mother, who wore the hijab, took it over. His parents never drank alcohol.
"It was in no way part of my family life," he said. "It was known this is haraam (forbidden) and when I would hear people try to justify (alcohol), I would laugh and quote from the Koran."
At home, the children were reminded to pray five times a day but not pressured to do so. As a child, Younis would join his father whenever he saw him praying. As he got older, he would remember to pray on his own. At 7, he began observing the traditional dawn-to-dusk fast for the entire month of Ramadan.
The holy month was the one religious practice the family observed together, his older sister Inas Younis remembers, waking up before dawn for the pre-fast meal, breaking the fast together at dusk and going to dinner parties. Not fasting during Ramadan would lead to pangs of guilt, she said.
"Ramadan is such a communal activity ... It becomes not just about you and God, but you and the community," said Inas, 36, a stay-at-home mother of three living in Kansas City. "And God is all-forgiving, but sometimes the community isn't."
Even during Younis' undergraduate years at the University of Kansas, the young computer science major didn't drank, date or party. At his first job after college, his co-workers would gather after hours and talk mostly about sex, he said. He would offer his own fake stories of liaisons.
"I was literally afraid of breaking religious rules. I felt I would be punished," he said.
His prayers became less frequent. He would recite the morning prayer on time but then do the other four together before bed, like a worship cram session. Soon those fell by the wayside. In order to maintain his place socially among friends and co-workers, he began going to bars and drinking.
Younis said his father — who lives in Dubai — is not bothered by his son's level of religious observance, seeing it as a personal choice.
Now, even the photos he posts on Facebook illustrate the duality of his life: An image of a verse in Arabic from the Koran — "We are all from God, and to God we shall return" — is followed by a group shot with friends. Younis stands in the foreground, his hand wrapped around a beer bottle.
His religious life now bears little resemblance to what it was 10 years ago. But Ramadan has remained a constant.
There have been moments when Younis says he thinks about how much easier it would be not to fast during Ramadan. But giving it up is not something he has ever seriously considered.
"I really fear what that explicit action of disobedience would mean for me, punishment-wise," he said. Then he acknowledged: "It sounds crazy, given that I do other things that are explicitly forbidden."
During the month, Younis will make what he admits will be a "half-baked effort" to perform the five daily prayers, and he will try to attend a sermon at a mosque every Friday. During the last 10 days — considered the holiest — he will ask God for forgiveness and make other requests. One year, he asked that a criminal charge stemming from a car crash be taken care of.
He acknowledges that other Muslims might view his practice as a copout, because he indulges all year, only to ask for forgiveness during a single month. But Younis contends that is one of the beauties of Islam. God, he believes, understands that people will inevitably make mistakes.
In this country, his sister Inas said, Islam's tenets can be difficult to follow; the social environment is not supportive of a devout way of life. Daily practice for many can fall by the wayside.
"But they don't abandon it emotionally or spiritually, and to me this is not hypocrisy," she said. "Some people may say it's hypocrisy; you call yourself Muslim but you don't practice. So Ramadan is a great opportunity ... to adhere to in 30 days what you find hard to adhere to every day."
Inas said she herself followed a path similar to her brother's: when she was in high school she prayed regularly and wore the hijab, but not anymore.
For many more secular Muslims, Ramadan is viewed as an obligatory interruption to a partying — or perhaps just less-than-religious — lifestyle. Some of Younis' own friends follow a similar pattern, and in parts of the Middle East, the best times to indulge in drinking, overeating and other vices are widely considered to be before and after the holy month.
Younis himself has no illusions that when Ramadan ends in mid-September, he'll once again stop his regular Friday afternoon attendance at the mosque in favor of time with friends at a bar or hotel lounge.
Back at the San Francisco club, Younis' friends soon lost track of him and the actress.
As it neared 3 a.m., Maxey went from room to room looking for his friend, trying him multiple times on his cellphone. He stood on the second floor scanning the pulsating crowds below, looking for Younis' dark hair, with its slight mohawk pouf, and his black jacket, which has more zippers than necessary.
Maxey, Younis' wingman for the night, eventually decided to catch another ride back to Oakland.