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Ramadan: More Than Fasting

Local Muslim families join to celebrate a month of charity and community.

Khalid Iqbal's favorite granddaughter, Summayya, bounces around his apartment after waking from her evening nap.

Brimming with energy, she plays with the television remote, tosses cell phones, tissues — anything she can get her 18-month-old hands on.

But when the clock hits 6:11 p.m. and the final guests arrive for the breaking of the fast, Summayya softens.

While her relatives and guests conduct their sunset prayer, Summayya plants herself quietly on the couch, eating raisins and smiling at their backs as they bow — facing west.

"I think sometimes she understands what we're doing, she'll see me and she'll copy me," said Sabah Iqbal, Summayya's mother.

In another 10 days, Muslims around the world will celebrate the end of the month-long religious fast known as Ramadan.

The fast is a time for the Muslim community to not only strengthen their spirituality and help those less fortunate, but also a time to unite with family and friends.

"It's a festive time, you get invited over and you get to see a lot more people," said Naveed Arf, a co-worker invited to Khalid Iqbal's apartment to join his family for the night.

AS THE NINTH MONTH of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is the holiest of all months for the Muslim community.

Marked by the sighting of the new moon, the 30-day fasting requires that all healthy and able Muslims abstain from food, drink, gum chewing, tobacco use as well as practice abstinence between sunrise and sunset.

"The sighting of the moon is a big occasion for the Islamic countries," said Reston resident Khalid Iqbal. "If the moon is sighted it would be announced on radios now, but in the old times they had sirens which acted as a call for prayer from the mosques."

Although they did not search for the moon last Friday evening, Iqbal celebrated the breaking of the fast by inviting his immediate family and two young co-workers over for a post-fast dinner.

"It's a time where you come together and people invite each other over, so there are a lot of social aspects," said the father of three. "Coming together as a family, neighbors and other friends — there's a real sense of bonding."

IQBAL EXPLAINED the Islamic religion is one focused on helping others.

Practicing Muslims have five pillars, or religious obligations, that they must adhere to, he said, adding that if a Muslim cannot fast for Ramadan they can feed the hungry every day for the month-long period.

The five pillars of the Islamic religion include first, a belief in God. The second requirement is that they pray five times a day, during Ramadan they add an additional prayer in the evening. The third requires all healthy Muslims to fast for the month of Ramadan. Fourth, they must pay a mandatory charity to help others, which does not have to be monetary. And the final requirement, if they can afford it, is to take a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

In addition to the five pillars, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to read the entire Qur'an at least once in the 30-day period.

"The best thing is to have goals before you start the month," said Sabah Iqbal, who is not fasting this month because she is pregnant. "If you smoke — you can't, you have to pray five times a day — if you already do those things try to do more. If you do a little more than you normally do hopefully that will become habit."

Taher Rasheed, Sabah's husband, said he thinks of Ramadan as a chance for self-improvement.

"I compare it to the New Year's resolutions aspect," said Rasheed. "You focus on what you want to improve about yourself, that way you get the most spiritual aspect."

Although the fast from food and drink are the most common facets of Ramadan, Mukit Hossain, who became a practicing Muslim seven years ago, explained these actions have deeper roots.

"This is the most personal worship ... because you're making a commitment to God not to do certain things," said Hossain, an active member in many interfaith based organizations in Herndon and Reston.

"You can't be irritable, angry, back-talking or harmful to others," he said. "It's not just physical abstinence, it's mental, physical, emotional abstinence — it's abstinence from everything one considers sinful."

Hossain, who has been working extra hours to feed the hungry and campaign for "Muslims for Kerry," said when he feels hungry, or more often thirsty, the required prayer gives him a psychological boost.

"If you don't feel your suffering," he asked, "how are you going to feel empathy for others?"

Khalid Iqbal agreed, adding that as a diabetic abstaining from food all day is not good for him — although he adapts after the first week.

"It brings you closer to humanity and to God, to the creator," said Iqbal. "It helps give a feeling of how do other people live who are not as fortunate as us. It's a real feeling when you feel hunger and are thirsty, and that motivates you to give more to the needy."

ALTHOUGH SUMMAYYA may be too young to understand the importance of her family's fasting now, Sabah said from experience, being raised in a fasting household should help Summayya want to participate in Ramadan when she is older.

But, until Summayya can fast, she'll be able to experience Ramadan like she did in her grandfather's living room — kicking her mini soccer ball around as talks of the election, civil rights and an upcoming wedding in Pakistan float above her.

"Little kids will see their parents fasting and they'll want to do it too even though they don't have to," Sabah said. "If you grow up in such a household, like we did, you get encouraged to do that."