Mention the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to 8-year-old Afra Mirza and her sparkling brown eyes widen with anticipation.
That’s because this year’s Ramadan, expected to dawn after the sighting of the new moon Friday, will mark Afra’s first fast, a rite of passage into the adult world of discipline and self-restraint.
“I want to get good deeds,” she said. “Allah commanded me to do it, and I want to make him happy.”
Although Afra and other Muslim children who have not yet reached puberty are exempt from the religious requirement to fast, more children are voluntarily abstaining long before their adolescence.
Eager to grow up and express their faith in adult ways, they are fasting with fervor, as long as their parents allow it.
Afra, for example, hopes to fast for 20 of the 30 days. Her mother, Abida, says Afra will fast only on the weekends.
“No, not weekends!” Afra protested at the family’s Grayslake home earlier this week. “If only on weekends, then why am I doing it?”
During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims are commanded to fast from dawn to dusk as a show of patience and piety. The fast not only prohibits eating and drinking during daylight hours, it also forbids vices such as smoking, profanity and bad temper.
“The whole purpose of fasting is to remind ourselves that all the bounties that God has given us can’t be taken for granted,” said Ahmed Rehab, communications director for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The ritual not only teaches self-discipline and appreciation, it teaches solidarity, Rehab said.
It is the camaraderie of Ramadan that often entices children to fast.
Families rise before dawn to pray and share a light meal called suhur. They gather again at dusk to break the fast and share a meal called iftar.
Both menus are designed to ease the sacrificial regimen. Suhur often includes juice and foods with little salt to prevent the person from becoming thirsty.
Muslims break the fast by biting into a date, a simple sugar that the body can break down during subsequent evening prayers. The iftar meal that follows the prayers is often packed with protein.
Children often eat better during Ramadan than they normally do, said Dr. Shahid Athar, chairman of medical ethics with the Islamic Medical Association of North America, based in Downers Grove.
Rather than sleep late and skip breakfast, they are required to rise early and eat with the rest of the family, he said.
“When everybody in the family is fasting–all the grown-up members, elder brothers and sisters–they feel left out,” he said. “They want to join the crowd.”
In addition to fasting, Muslims read the Koran, the holy book, which they believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during the month of Ramadan about 1,400 years ago.
Those who fail to pray five times a day year-round make a concerted effort to do so during the holy month. They also place emphasis on charitable giving.
“In all religions there are mass festivities and mass sacrifices,” Rehab said. “Both are designed not only to connect people to God, but connect people together.”
The communal aspect of Ramadan is evident at Afra’s Islamic school in Morton Grove, where early dismissal during the holy month creates more quality time for family and friends.
Meanwhile, during the school day, teachers make sure children are eating. Those who are fasting must have a permission slip from their parents.
So as not to curb kids’ enthusiasm, many parents like Abida Mirza encourage weekend fasts. She is afraid her daughter, who weights 52 pounds, is too weak to refrain from food during school days. Children tend to lose concentration in the classroom or expend too much energy during recess, she said.
“[A weekend fast] is like a make-believe fast,” said Muhammad Chaudry, director of Islamic Food and Nutrition Council in Chicago. “That’s how the training and mental conditioning starts.”
A make-believe fast is exactly what Azeel Jivraj, 6, of Niles will observe this year, said his mother, Shaneela. While she will allow him to fast, she won’t enforce it throughout the day.
“He insisted,” she said. “We don’t want to scare him off. They do what they can….Obviously you have to make those concessions with the children.”
Hiam Hafiz of Huntley turns 9 this Ramadan. She, too, is observing a weekend fast.
“I’m going to think of those people who can’t eat every day,” she said. “It’s good to feel that way so God will be happy with us and he’ll give us in return good health and smartness.”
Hiam will have a birthday party, but because the party falls on a weekend afternoon, she will not partake of cake.
“There will be no exception,” her father, Abu, said. “She will cut the cake and give it to her friends, but she won’t eat it at that time.”
Abida Mirza believes illness is the only acceptable reason for abandoning a fast, which is why she doesn’t want Afra to commit to fasting during the week. She considers it an unrealistic goal.
“When you make a commitment, you have to go all the way,” she said.
Regardless of her mother’s concerns, Afra’s first fast–called Roza Kushai in her parents’ native language, Urdu–is cause for celebration.
In November, the family will rent a banquet hall to welcome relatives from far and wide bearing gifts.
Afra will don a flowing fuchsia scarf and embroidered skirt passed down from her sister. She will stain her hands with henna and wear bangles taken from a collection of thousands she keeps in her bedroom.
She is confident that she will not slip up this Ramadan no matter how many days she, or her mother, decides she will go without. If she does, she knows God will understand.
“God is really generous,” she said. “If you want to do it from your heart, he forgives you.”
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