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Ramadan: Why Muslim Families Fast

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    Ramadan: Why Muslim Families Fast

    By Kiran Ansari
    Photos by Josh Hawkins

    Imran Ali, 7, leads the 5 p.m. family prayers in their Hickory Hills home as Eeba, 8, Ammar, 4, and his mother Aisha Ali follow.

    Huma Murad's three daughters have been fasting at Ramadan since they were 7 years old--a choice they made to show their commitment to Islam and the holy month.

    "Now that Fatimah, Amnah and Sarah are 17, 14 and 10, respectively, they don't find fasting difficult," says Murad of Justice. And Murad says it was something they helped the girls learn to do over the years.

    "We never forced our children, but they insisted on emulating us," says Murad. "At first, we just allowed them to keep a weekend ‘half-fast' where they could eat at lunch time. However, as the years passed by, fasting became habitual.

    Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is considered the holiest month in the year because it is the month in which God revealed the Qur'an or the Muslim's Holy Book, through Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad about 1,400 years ago.

    During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk to instill the virtues of patience and piety. They have a small meal, Suhur, before sunrise, then abstain from food and drink until Iftar, the meal at sunset.

    With more than 7 million American and immigrant Muslims in the United States, Ramadan and Eid, the celebration that follows, are no longer foreign terms. Presidents and first ladies have hosted and attended Iftar parties. Hallmark now sells Eid (rhymes with reed) cards, retailers are beginning to sell decorations and some libraries ask the Muslim community to set up a Ramadan display with books and tapes to be checked out.

    The month is to teach important lessons that go beyond refraining from food. At its heart, the holiday encourages the development of good qualities in both parents and children while teaching people how to refrain from negative habits.

    Children are not required to fast until they reach puberty, but nine out of 10 Muslim children fast voluntarily.

    "Even though my 10-year-old son, Abdul Rahman, really loves food, he fasted for the whole month last Ramadan," says Rasha el-Khatib of Villa Park.

    Parents know it is crucial for them to be their children's role models. "The responsibility to set a good example lies on us," says Huma. She continues: "We can't leave it to pop stars and action heroes to be our children's ideals. Fasting teaches restraint from the lawful so that it becomes easier to refrain from the unlawful. It isn't just about staying hungry and thirsty. It's also about staying away from lying, backbiting and hurting others."

    It's easier for the children who attend private Islamic schools to observe Ramadan because the schools close the cafeteria for the month and the children are let out an hour earlier. This allows children and parents time to squeeze in a nap or prepare for Iftar.

    Challenges and charity

    Children attending secular schools face more challenges keeping their fast and finding a place for afternoon prayers.

    Rasha el-Khatib's daughter, Rahaf Damar, 9, reads in the library during lunch time when she is fasting.

    "In my children's public school in Des Plaines," says Kishwar Rehman, "the Muslim parents spoke to the teachers in advance and they, in turn, were very cooperative.

    "The Muslim children were provided a room for prayer and they could stay back in class while the others went for lunch. However, peer pressure can be tough. Seeing their friends eat may tempt some children to break their fast," she says.

    Fasting at public schools or at work does invite plenty of questions. "My neighbor asked me why I keep my kids hungry all day. I explained that the kids are never forced to fast. This is what they want to do. They have a nutritious Suhur and a delicious Iftar to look forward to. Fasting instills a feeling of gratitude because when they feel the pangs of hunger, they get a sense of what the less fortunate have to deal with every day. Our children know that their hunger is just temporary," says Rehman.

    Generally, younger children begin with a half-fast on weekends. When they are older and want to fast voluntarily, parents encourage them to fast for the entire day, perhaps starting with only two fasts during the month. Children who commit to fasting are expected to fast the entire day, breaking their fast only if they fall ill.

    Fasting begins with Suhur, the pre-dawn meal. "I make sure that we all have a nutritious Suhur," says Schaumburg mom Tazeen Hussain. "Some families prefer a regular breakfast of cereal and eggs, but we prefer traditional foods like kebobs and parathas (hand-made fried bread). Along with the kids, I make sure I eat well, too. I make it a point to have Ensure so that I know I have the energy to face the day."

    At sunset, parents always make a favorite meal for the children who have been fasting. Following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, most Muslims break their fast with dates and water. Then they eat a bigger meal after offering the evening prayer. "There are some dishes that have become associated with Ramadan," says el-Khatib. Originally from Palestine, she feels that Iftar is incomplete without fattoosh (salad), juice made from dried apricots and katayef (dessert).

    Another special part of Ramadan is the night prayers in the mosque. It instills a strong sense of community when people from all walks of life come together after a day of fasting to offer voluntary prayers. At some mosques, after half the prayers are over, local charities raise funds for different causes.

    "It touches everyone's heart when children contribute from their own allowances," says Murad.

    Anticipation and Eid

    Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. Celebrated this year during the last week of November, Eid is a time for gratitude, rejoicing and sharing. Every household has its own unique way of marking the holiday, as well as the countdown to Eid.

    On the first day of Ramadan, Dr. Saima Azfar of Hoffman Estates makes a chain of 30 crescents out of construction paper and hangs it from the wall of her 5- and 6-year-olds' bedroom. Every day they pull down one crescent so that they know they are a day closer to Eid. Some families decorate their homes' exteriors with lights while others prefer having "Eid Mubarak" (Happy Eid) balloons and streamers inside. While most families make their own decorations, retailers increasingly are seeing the commercial potential in Ramadan.

    Eid products are available now at retailers as well as on the Web at sites such as and

    But building the anticipation for each step in the holiday helps children feel the excitement long before it begins.

    We always try to take our kids outside to look for the new moon," says Aisha Ali of Hickory Hills. "The lunar Muslim calendar leaves an element of surprise."

    Ali also helps the children make a colorful calendar to mark the special month.

    Often, Ramadan preparations start long before the holy month begins. Many parents spend time cooking and shopping to try and make family favorites such as egg rolls, kebobs and chutneys in advance and freeze them. This gives everyone more time to devote to worship and charity during Ramadan.

    Some families complete their Eid shopping before Ramadan begins, while others' schedules means they must leave it to the last minute.

    "A few days before Eid," says Ali, "Our entire family brainstorms on the kitchen floor around a roll of banner paper. The kids doodle their favorite things about the holiday and make a collage of what they learned and did during this month. We then lay out the banner along with their new clothes and shoes in the living room so that it's the first thing they see on Eid day."

    Girls consider Eid to be synonymous with henna. Whether they ask their mothers to apply it for them or they choose to get it done professionally at a salon, nearly every Muslim girl's hands are red in time for Eid.

    Just like the Christian tradition of drinking egg nog on Christmas, henna has no religious connotation, but has become associated with Eid and other celebrations, such as weddings. "There is usually so much to do on the night before Eid," says Hussain. "But however much I prepare in advance, I still have eight to 10 hands of henna to apply that night."

    Eid day begins with families going for the Eid prayer held at various centers and banquet halls around the country. Before the prayer begins, every attendee contributes a minimum of $5 as "Zakat-ul-Fitr," which loosely translates to mean obligatory charity after Ramadan. The money is distributed among the poor. "We also try to make goody bags for the less fortunate kids so that they, too, have something to look forward to. In addition to candy and small toys, last year we included toothbrushes and school supplies," says Hussain.

    Students who attend Islamic schools get a few days off school and make up that time later. If Eid falls on a weekday, some parents return to work after prayers; others take the day off.

    Families visit each other during the next couple of days. Children receive gifts or cash, dubbed "Eidee" and love stuffing their tiny wallets with those hard-earned dollar bills.

    Eeba Ali, 8, says, "Last year I told everyone that I wanted a watch for Eid. On Eid day I was so lucky, I received not one, but four new watches."

    Islamic organizations and local mosques often host Eid gatherings where people enjoy a variety of dishes from various Muslim countries. Parents also organize Eid parties for their kids. Amina Jaffer-Mohsin of Villa Park is very creative when it comes to adapting popular party games to her culture.

    "We had ‘pin the dome on the mosque' and ‘bingo with Arabic letters' at my kids' Eid party. I even tried putting up an Arabic puppet show for them one year," she says. After Eid, children often take small treats like cupcakes to share with the rest of the class. My children take a gift for their teachers on Eid because I want them to be proud of their holiday," says Azfar.

    Whether it's the ‘Eidee' that excites the kids, the fancy new clothes that girls look forward to or the ‘sheer korma' (dessert) that adults wait for, Eid is a holiday that serves to give children a reward-a pat on the back for a job well done.

    (A Pakistani salad made for Ramadan)

    3 plum tomatoes chopped into cubes
    3 small cucumbers chopped into cubes
    3 small onions sliced into rings
    1 bunch of parsley finely chopped
    1 lettuce torn into bite-sized pieces
    6 radishes - chopped
    1 each green, yellow and red peppers chopped into cubes
    4 mint leaves
    olive oil
    salt to taste
    lemon juice
    2 slices of pita bread cut into cubes

    Directions: Toss all the vegetables. Add the olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Fry the pita cubes until golden brown (or as a healthier alternative, bake them in the oven till brown). Top the salad with the pita bread. Serves 6.

    Sheer Korma
    (A Pakistani dessert made for Eid)

    ¼ cup canola oil
    2 cups 2% milk
    1 small can unsweetened evaporated milk
    ½ cup almonds blanched
    ½ cup pistachios whole
    ¾ cup vermicelli broken into pieces. (Available at Pakistani food stores)
    ¾ cup sugar
    2 pinches of saffron

    Directions: Heat the oil in a non-stick pan. Add the almonds, pistachios and vermicelli and fry until golden. Then add the canned and fresh milk and let it cook for 10 minutes. When it starts to boil, add the sugar and the saffron. Let it simmer for another 10 minutes on low heat. Leave runny. Serve hot or cool in the refrigerator. Serves 6.

    Kiran Ansari is a writer who lives in Roselle with her husband and 21-month old son, Yusuf.
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