When Layla Khan, 4, was asked by her teacher to help collect money for orphans, her mother Smeena Khan wanted to help her understand why helping orphans was such a worthwhile cause.
"I asked her what it would be like without a mommy and a daddy. I said, ‘Who would take care of you?’ and without missing a beat she answered, 'God,' and I was like yes she gets it!" said Khan, beaming with pride.
It is precisely this — the understanding that faith in God, not worldly possessions or food, is all that a person really needs — that is at the root of Ramadan.
Ramadan, the Islamic tradition of fasting between dawn and sunset for the duration of the ninth lunar month of every year, is a cultural ritual observed by Muslims around the world. It is part of the five pillars of Islam, which are belief in God, prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage.
"These are the pillars upon which you lay your foundation," said Smeena Khan.
It is so important that even as Smeena Khan, a dermatologist, and her husband Naveed Khan, an infertility specialist, go through their busy, daily existence in McLean, they faithfully adhere to its requirements. Despite the common perception that Ramadan must be a time of discomfort and inconvenience for Muslims, it is actually quite the opposite.
"I am giddy with excitement in the months before Ramadan starts, and I am sad when it leaves because it's a time of self reflection and I feel so focused," said Smeena Khan. "You put aside everything else, and everything good gets magnified."
THE KHANS MOVED TO MCLEAN a year and a half ago, primarily because of the strong Islamic community and schooling that the area offers. Through the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center, one of the largest Muslim communities and mosques in the Washington D.C. metro area, the Khan's found Al-Fatih Academy, a school in Herndon that is specifically geared toward Muslim children.
"Al-Fatih, which means 'the opening,' integrates Islamic morals into its academics, and I just fell in love with the school," said Smeena Khan.
The academy, which is a non-profit community school, has been in Herndon for six years and has approximately 80 children from pre-school to sixth grade.
"We are an independent school and our philosophy is an integrated curriculum," said Aseefa Syeed, a director at the academy. "We want to teach the children to balance their identity as Muslims and Americans."
Both Smeena and Naveed Khan's families are from Pakistan, but both were born in the United States and have not had the opportunity to go there. They met in medical school in Miami and have been married for 15 years. As well, both of them are happy with their decision to relocate to McLean.
"We love it," said Smeena Khan. "It's great for the kids, the weather is perfect and it's got great culture and a great sense of community. It's a cultural metropolis that still has southern charm."
The Khan's have three daughters — Layla, 4, Mariam, 3 and Nadia, 21 months. Although the children are still too young to participate in Ramadan, they are already absorbing the meaning behind it. Usually children begin fasting around puberty.
"Children often want to fast so we build them up to it," said Smeena Khan. "For example at 7, 8 and 9 they might fast from breakfast to lunch, just so they get an idea ... both my husband and I started when we were 8 or 9 and by 10 we were both fasting."
For Muslims, there are a multitude of benefits from fasting.
"It teaches us compassion for others who have less than us, it teaches us to be productive because you spend your day working and not resting, and it teaches patience," said Smeena Khan. "For us, patience is one of the best virtues, and it's really what we would like our kids to learn."
FASTING IS NOT the only component of Ramadan. In fact, it is only a very small part of the tradition.
"The idea is to give up things that take you away from God," said Smeena Khan. "It's a month of focus."
For example, during Ramadan Muslims must pray more frequently because it is a sign of their devotion to God. Charity is another important element.
"You are required to do an act of charity everyday, but anything can be a charity — a smile is a charity, a kind word is a charity, picking up a piece of trash in the mall is a charity," said Smeena Khan.
Even though Islamic tradition permits the consumption of food between sunset and dawn during Ramadan, the Khan's try to stay true to the theme of moderation.
"We usually just have the one meal when we break fast, and we prepare the food in a community setting and try to keep the meals simple — it's not all rich food," said Smeena Khan.
Developing a more acute appreciation for what you have is one of the biggest rewards of Ramadan.
"You realize what is important in your life," said Naveed Khan. "It's not ... rock stars, or money or any of that — it's your family."
According to Smeena Khan, moderation is a fundamental part of Islamic beliefs.
"Ramadan makes me realize that my worldly needs are not that important. It teaches you that food is your sustenance — and we appreciate it. We try to avoid extravagance in our culture — in our cars, our food, our clothing ... we're not paupers but we follow the middle way," she said.