The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, with its daily sun-up to sundown fasts, increased prayer and focus on charity, is drawing to a close. That means there are only a few days left for young Muslims to try to fast for the first time.
Refraining from food and water during the days of Ramadan is meant to help Muslims build a closer relationship with God, to become better people, and to gain control over unnecessary or harmful wants and desires. Muslims aren’t required by their faith to do the full month of fasting until they hit puberty, but many young people start practicing early, often in half-days or full days on the weekends.
“Younger people love doing it, because mom is fasting, dad is fasting, everybody is fasting. It’s cool to fast,” said Faizan Syed of the Council on American Islamic Relations-St. Louis.
It’s a big accomplishment for youngsters, particularly those in St. Louis; in recent years Ramadan has fallen during the summer, meaning days at least 16 hours long.
It’s why Syed is so impressed with young people who fast today. When he first fasted at age 8, Ramadan was during shorter December days.
But the long hours haven’t stopped several St. Louis area young people from trying to fast for the first time or beat their previous “records,” so Syed offers some advice.
“Just be patient with it. And do me a favor: don’t spend your entire day playing video games and watching TV,” he said. “Do something spiritual, do something that helps the community as well. Because that’s what I did when I was a kid — I just played video games and watched TV all day.”
This marks the first Ramadan in which 8-year-old Armaan Ali Ahmed fasted for more than a few hours.
“I fasted two times for 17 hours,” he said, proudly.
The Town and Country youngster, who was interviewed via Skype, said he got to wake up at 3 a.m., and eat hash browns, and after he broke his fast at night, his mom gave him his favorite food: chicken noodle soup.
Armaan said he felt tired and hungry some of the time, but mostly tried to keep his mind off of it by praying, napping or playing with his Golden Retriever.
“I slept or stayed awake and played on my iPad — not any food games,” he added.
Armaan is already thinking about Ramandan in the future. Next year, he wants to complete eight fasts, like his older brother, and eventually work up to the full month.
“My mom told me that when you fast you get so much good deeds,” he said. “I’ll get even more good deeds from God, because this time I only fasted two times, and I got a lot of good deeds. If I do it all 30 days and the full fast, I’ll get so much good deeds.”
He might be little, but Armaan said he understands that Ramadan and the fasts “make you think about God” and to help him understand how those who are less fortunate, who don’t get enough to eat, feel.
That was a lesson Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, remembers his parents teaching him during his first fast at the age of 7.
“One thing that my parents kept telling me throughout the day: ‘If you’re feeling hungry and thirsty, think about all the people who don’t have food, who don’t have access to water, and who are still out there working, trying to make a living out in the sun and they have to put up with it, not because they have, you know, any other option, but it’s a survival for them,’” he said. “That was the switch from sympathy to empathy, and it was made clear to me at 7 years of age.”
But Khan also remembers how proud his parents were, particularly his father.
“I still remember the look of pride on my father’s face, in particular, who was a disciplinarian. It wasn’t the easiest of things in the world to please him,” he said.
Armaan said his parents, too, were happy and proud of him.
A family activity
Some young Muslims, like the Raja siblings of Wildwood, start fasting even earlier than Ahmed did.
Ali, 13; Tanya, 11; and Ameer Raja, 9, first fasted at 5- and 6-years-old.
This year, Tanya said she has kept seven fasts, which she says makes her feel proud and like she’ll deserve all the presents she’s looking forward to getting on Eid, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.
“It feels good when you fast, like you beat a record of yours,” she said.
Someone else also has his eye on her record: younger brother Ameer, who has done six fasts. “I just want to beat her.”
“Every morning, he asks me, ‘Tanya, are you fasting?’ and when I say, ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’m fasting, too,’” she said, laughing.
But eldest brother Ali holds the family record: he is completing his second full-month fast this year. He recommends getting up before sunrise to eat and drink plenty of water and spending time during the day reading.
For him, the fast isn’t about competing or getting gifts, but about making God happy. He said fulfilling the Ramadan fast is one of the five pillars of Islam.
“You fast because God asks you to do it to show your faith in him,” Ali said. “Fasting for God is something you can do only once a year.”
Whatever their motives, mom Hina Raja said she is amazed by her children’s choice — and notes with pride they have been the youngest family members to fast, impressing cousins and uncles.
“It’s a big gift, we’re very proud of them. It just came to them — nobody forced them, it’s just in them,” she said.
Raja said her kids were probably inspired by seeing her and her husband and other older relatives fast. She said she and her husband reward the kids with their favorite foods, like sushi, when they break their fasts, and the promise of toys on Eid. But she said they always keep the purpose of Ramadan front and center.
“We’ve told them we don’t eat to see how the hungry people live, to appreciate what God has given us,” she said. “Tell them not to lie. We don’t fight. It requires a lot of patience to fast.”
“They pray to God — we pray out loud, so Ameer asks for his favorite toys from God,” she adds with a laugh.
Still, she said she was worried, because the hot summer days can last more than 16 hours in St. Louis. But she encourages parents to let their children try.
“It was such a long day and I didn’t know if they could — you know a 5 year old with no water. I was just scared they would pass out or something,” she said. “I was hungry and they were fine and playing and jumping around. But they made it. So I guess just let them try and be proud of them.”
It’s important for young people to fast for a few days at a time each year to help young people keep the full, month-long fast later on, said 14-year-old Amana Yossef of Ballwin.
“It’s just the build-up of progress that we get from us growing up and learning when we were younger to fast five days or six days and getting in the habit of it to fast the full month,” she said.
It helped that in Amana’s home, there was always some activity to do so “that we wouldn’t just be sitting around, so time would go by real quick.”
That was thanks to mom Laila Yossef, who would build excitement for the coming Eid holiday by decorating the house and keeping lots of activities on hand.
"We always went shopping for activities and crafts, so I made sure that they were busy,” she said. “We would just do do-it-yourself decorations for the house or anything to keep them busy, which I miss now that everybody’s older. Nobody wants to do them anymore.”
With tears in her eyes, Laila recalls with pride when her eldest daughter, Amaly, first came to her asking permission to fast. But at the time she was nervous.
“She was in kindergarten and when she said she wanted to fast, I thought I was going to faint, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s not going to do this,’” Laila said. “People are going to think I’m a mean mom, starving my child.”
Now 22, Amaly Yossef, a Saint Louis University graduate student, said she remembers the experience well.
“I remember being in class and in lunchtime, just knowing I wasn’t eating — ‘yeah I’m not eating, yeah, I’m doing that,’” she said. “I was so proud of myself. It’s not mostly about keeping away from food and water, it’s about being a better Muslim and a better person, because I saw myself respecting others more. I saw myself having more patience. You don’t have energy to fight with anyone.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there is no chiding among four sisters who are hungry and thirsty.
“You’ll forget and drink a bit of water, and if you do that in front of your sisters, you’ll hear it for the rest of the month,” she said laughing.
With years of full-month fasts under her belt, Amaly recommends first-timers eat healthily before the fast begins each morning. Sister Aminah, 20, said young people can distract themselves from hunger or thirst by staying busy.
“I suggest to young individuals who are fasting for the first time to just branch out of their comfort zone a little bit by giving back to the community in ways like going to a nursing home and helping them out for a few hours or making a lunch sack for homeless people,” she said. “That just shows them what Ramadan is about for us.”
But Amana said another important aspect of learning to fast was learning how to explain it to her friends.
“A lot of them would ask, ‘Oh my god, you can’t eat this long? Oh my god, how do you do it?’ But it was just as simple as explaining it to them,” she said. “If you open the subject to them, you show them it’s a really beautiful thing.”
She added: “I’m happy that I can open the subject up with them and they can accept me really for who I am, so there’s a really good feeling.”
Asad Siddiqui, a ninth grader at Parkway South High School, said he wasn’t able to fully explain Ramadan and the fast to his friends when he first tried it in third grade. Now he can.
“When I first started fasting, I embraced my religion more, that I was a Muslim, and that I should be proud to be one,” he said. “I learned a lot more about my religion and what it’s based on.”
Recently, he explained the fast to a friend — via text, of course.
“I said, ‘Ramadan is where we can’t eat from sunrise to sunset, and to show that our God is the most powerful and that we should be grateful for our lives that we have,” he said. “And that Easter and those religious times for Christians, you know, Ramadan — that’s to us. That’s very important to our hearts.”
As for first-time fasters, Asad has a unique strategy to get through the day:
“Sometimes it helps if I watch cooking shows and watch people eat food,” he said. “That, like, fills my stomach a little.”
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