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A Fast of Faith

<bt>Dressed in a new, bright-red suit, the 7-year-old girl took a bite out of a date and sipped some water as her parents, cousins, aunts and uncles looked on. Not having consumed any food or drink since 5 a.m. that morning, she opened her first fast of Ramadan amid the clapping and words of encouragement of her family.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, is when Allah conveyed the first verses of the Koran — the Muslim holy book — to the prophet of the Muslims, Muhammad. The Koran simply directs believers not to eat, drink or engage in sexual relations from sunrise to sundown for the 30 days of Ramadan as proof of their faith. Exempted from this decree are those who are traveling or ill. The Hadith, a collection of sayings and deeds of Muhammad, is the source of the more detailed instructions on fasting and general behavior during Ramadan.

Although Shaheen Ahmad, a senior at Lake Braddock High School, started fasting at age 7, she didn't fully understand the significance of the Muslim ritual until she was older.

"When we were little, they [parents] explained that this is one of the pillars of Islam; it's a requirement," Ahmad said. "We didn't really understand it then, but now we understand why it's a requirement."

According to Ahmad, the main purpose of Ramadan is to serve Allah and avoid any other activities that would prevent one from doing so. As part of her fast, Ahmad refrains from listening to music or watching television, except for the news.

"It is beneficial to reflect on yourself, to find that I don't need TV or music to be happy. And I am so grateful for the food that I have," Ahmad said

Atiqa Asad of Fairfax also began fasting with only the understanding that this was a requirement.

"In my home atmosphere, we had been educated that this is what we are required to do," Asad said. "All my friends were doing it. In the beginning, it was fun because you got to eat good food in the morning and in the evening."

Asad said she soon learned that among the many virtues of fasting was experiencing what hunger means.

"You are aware of how people stay hungry," Asad said of the fast.

However, Asad found that the modern tradition of preparing feasts for aftari (the opening of the fast) takes away from the intended experience of fasting. As a child, Asad remembers opening the fast with only dates and water.

Kokab Atia, a Fairfax County resident, believes that experiencing the pain of hunger can arouse sympathy and motivate people to make charitable donations to those less fortunate. Atia, who does not fast due to illness, makes a monetary donation to a needy family during Ramadan. The Koranic verses on fasting stipulate that those who cannot fast can instead feed one destitute person for each day of fasting.

ANOTHER ASPECT of fasting is the required self-restraint and will power. According to Hadith, the fast is broken if a person lies, cheats or thinks ill of others. For Ahmad, fasting becomes a challenge when she is around others who are eating. During lunch, Ahmad and other Muslim students at Lake Braddock can go to a designated prayer room to pray.

Praying is also an important part of Ramadan, and along with the five daily prayers, some Muslims recite the Taraweh, a special Ramadan prayer. Taraweh is performed after the Isha (daily nightly prayer) and involves reading 1/30th of the Koran with the end goal of finishing the Koran by the 30th day. During the last 10 days of Ramadan (Itikaf), some Muslims go into seclusion to pray and be closer with God.

"If you don't pray the whole year, pray this month," Ahmad said. "This is the month when your good deeds count the most."

Ahmad also enjoys the extra time she spends with her family during Ramadan. Aftari is a time of not only opening her fast but also talking to her parents and siblings.

"I am so much closer to my family," Ahmad said. "We always break our fast together. If I am at school, I won't break my fast until I get home. I am determined to get home at 4:30."

Asad, who recently moved to the United States from Pakistan, misses the tradition of sending portions of the aftari food to the neighbors. She also used to rely on the Azan — the daily call to prayer announced from loudspeakers in mosques — to tell her when to stop and start fasting in her native country. However, Asad has been able to create the back-home atmosphere of Ramadan: rising around 4:30 a.m., eating, praying, going back to sleep, preparing food for aftari and gathering the family to open the fast at 5 p.m. and finally reciting Taraweh before retiring.