Just as he has every day for the past month, Abdul-Malik Ahmad, a web developer from Reston, waits patiently for sunset. Having abstained from food and drink since his pre-dawn breakfast Wednesday morning, Ahmad, sampled a few traditional dates, moments after the sun set Wednesday evening at precisely 4:53 p.m.
It was a quiet scene repeated around thousands of area living rooms this November. For the last month, Ahmad and the estimated 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide have celebrated the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by fasting from sunrise to sunset. This year, as is tradition, Ramadan began with the sighting of the new moon on Oct. 26.
His wife Rahima Ullah, the couple’s two-year-old daughter Sakina, and other friends and family members joined Ahmad in the breaking of the fast. It is common for the evening dinners to be full of family and friends, Ahmad explained. "The fasting teaches us discipline. We live in this fast food culture and we are reminded, over the course of this month, that we need not eat so much," he said. "We spend this month purifying our bodies and our minds."
Following a tradition set by Muhammad, the fast is ended with dates and water and is followed by the sunset prayers and then a bigger dinner.
The holiest month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan marks the time that Allah delivered the Quran, the Muslim holy book, to Mohammed. In it, Allah instructs his followers not to eat, drink or engage in sexual relations from sunrise to sundown, as a test of their faith. The Hadith, a collection of sayings and deeds from Muhammad, details even more specific instructions on fasting and expected behavior during the holy month of Ramadan. In addition to the five daily prayers, many Muslims recite a special Ramadan prayer called the Taraweh that is recited after the Isha, or nightly prayer.
WHILE FASTING, considered one of the five pillars of Islam, can be difficult, the result is worth it, the couple said. The fast is performed to learn discipline, self-restraint and generosity, while obeying God's commandments. For 30 days, like thousands of area Muslims, Ahmad and Ullah rise before the sun for pre-dawn prayers, called Fajr, and a big breakfast called the called the Sahoor.
Ullah, whose parents emigrated from Bangladesh before she was born, says she looks forward to Ramadan every year. "It’s a way to physically and spiritually improve ourselves. You can’t fix everything in one night, that’s why we need three or four weeks for everything to sink in," Ullah said. "It is also a way for feel what other people in the world — people who are less fortunate than us — feel everyday. We are so blessed in this country, but we are reminded that not everyone is so lucky."
Lisa Hashem, a friend of Ahmad and Ullah from Leesburg, joined the family for their break fast dinner, known as Iftar, last Wednesday. "It’s just such a blessed month and it is important to surround yourself with friends and family," Hashem said. "For me, Ramadan is a chance to really reflect back on the past year."
The 30 days of Ramadan is broken into three 10-day stages, Hashem said. During the first stage, Muslims ask God or Allah for forgiveness. The second stage, believers pray to Allah for mercy. During the last stage, Muslims ask for protection from fire, or Hell. As Christians prepare for Christmas and members of the Jewish faith celebrate Hanukkah, millions of U.S. Muslims like Ahmad look forward to Eid Al Fitr, one the faith's most important holidays, which comes at the end of Ramadan. During Ramadan, many Muslims will re-read the entire Quran.
Ullah and Ahmad admit that some days are more difficult than others, but both insist that the grumbling stomach or the occasional stretch of irritability are nothing compared to the benefits the fasting brings them as individuals, as a couple and as parents.
"It teaches great self-discipline and it makes you a better person," Ahmad said. "Food is a necessity and if you can abstain from food, then you can do anything that God asks you to do. Everything is easy after a month of fasting."
REHENUMA ASMI, who was also at Ahmad’s Iftar dinner, said Ramadan is a really special and spiritual time of year. "It’s a chance for you to take a step back for your own spiritual rejuvenation," the third grade teacher said. "It’s just a constant reminder of your faith. Everybody comes together and there is free food everywhere."
To help ease the transition into Ramadan, Ahmad says he tries to fast regularly throughout the year. But come November, he admits there is usually an adjustment period. "I get more done at work and I get to come back home a little earlier," he said.
His wife agreed. "Your schedule does change. Typically we are up at about 4 a.m. to get ready and to have our pre-dawn meal," Ullah said. "The point is not that the fasting is supposed to make you starving — it is not a punishment."
Besides the fast, most Muslims spend more time in the mosque each day. During Ramadan, Ahmad goes to the ADAMS — All Dulles Area Muslim Society — Center in Sterling every day. "That’s my favorite part," Ahmad said. "Going to the mosque everyday allows me to see the changes in myself. Everyday, I see myself improve. Before this month, I had not been going to the mosque very much. Now, I am reminded how much I get from those trips."
Born and raised in Maryland, Ahmad was born into the faith after his parents had converted to Islam. As a child, Ahmad remembers the days leading up to Ramadan. As is custom, children are not obligated to fast until adolescence, but often younger children will try to participate for a shorter period. "There was a sense of excitement," Ahmad said. "When everyone you knew and your whole family was fasting, you wanted to fast, too. Of course, you also go through this kiddy-phase where you might take a date when nobody is looking."
For Ullah, a stay-at-home mom and student, the Ramadan period is a special time to spend even more time with her daughter. "I want to keep many of my parents' traditions alive. Now that I have a child, I want to do many of the same things I remember doing as a child," she said. "While she might not understanding everything now, I know that these traditions will improve her as a person and it will help her understand her religion and positively reinforce her beliefs."
In addition to fasting, Muslims are expected to restrain from watching too much television or listening to the radio. "It’s not a strict rule, but we do try to avoid TV and anything that doesn’t add something to our lives" Ahmad said. "I usually watch the news. The time is better spent for personal reflection and prayer."
"And Jeopardy," his wife added, smiling. "We just try to stay away from Jerry Springer and those kinds of things."