"Ramadan is the most holy month for Muslims," explained Muawia Abu-el Hawa as he sits down in his living room. He is a large, middle-aged man with close-cropped hair, a long, full beard turning from brown to gray, and alert, dark eyes.
The room is bright and clean, with a high ceiling and a hardwood floor. The furniture and artwork is not crowded but is ornate and of distinctly Middle Eastern design. The family moved into this house just east of Vienna about six months ago.
During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Muslims fast during the daylight hours, meditate on their faith and ask God for forgiveness. "He forgives you any time," Hawa says, "as long as you do not give Him a partner," meaning that God must be considered the only god and the highest power. "But this is like a mercy month."
This year, Ramadan began Sept. 24 and will run through Oct. 23, give or take a day. The observance rolls across the seasons from year to year because the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar cycle.
Hawa explains a little more about his faith: "We believe all the prophets are human beings like you or I, but they are messengers of God," he says. "But their living is better than our living."
From another room, a male voice begins a high-pitched intonation, sounding as though it is being filtered through a small radio speaker. "That means it is time to break the fast," says Hawa. He leaves the room and comes back with a device resembling an alarm clock. It stops singing as he enters the room. He calls it an "advent" and explains that it calls out the times for the five daily Muslim prayers, which are timed in accordance with the sun. "In a Muslim country, this would be a man calling out from the mosque," he says. The device can be reset for any specific region.
It is time for the day's fourth prayer, he says, but first, the fast must be broken.
HAWA'S OLDEST SON, 8-year-old Naim, lingers near the entryway. Naim is blind and does not say much — yet — but jumps and fidgets excitedly. He, too, has been fasting all day, Hawa explains, noting that Naim began fasting through Ramadan three years ago of his own accord.
"When I was his age, I didn't do it all month," says Hawa, adding that he skipped some days when he was 8. "You are allowed to do that, by the religion, until you are a man," he says, adding that one is a man when one is mature and clear-headed. "And free. You have to be free," says Hawa, as he answers the door.
Cousins and their families are arriving. Hawa fetches a bowl of large dates and begins distributing them. The prophet Mohammed broke his fast with dates, he says, and so this is how Muslims break their fast each day during Ramadan. He then disappears to prepare himself for prayer. The women join Hawa's wife in the kitchen.
"This is the month the Koran came down to Mohammed," says Abdelkader Khatib, one of Hawa's cousins, who, like Hawa, came to the United States from Jerusalem. "We don't know what day of Ramadan the Koran came down," he adds. "That's why we fast the whole month."
There are other practices associated with the holy month besides fasting. One is to gather with friends and family to pray and break the fast, as Khatib and others have gathered at Hawa's home. "This is not a requirement, gathering," says Khatib. "It's a tradition, a custom." Also, during this month, it is especially important to give to the poor. And, again, he notes that it is a time to ask forgiveness. Throughout the year, Khatib explains, God multiplies one's good deeds but not the bad. However, he says, during Ramadan, "they say the heavens are open."
"If you do something bad, during Ramadan, it goes away," Naim interjected. "But the most important part of Ramadan is that, if you fast, you feel how the poor people feel. They get very hungry, but you get very hungry," he continued. "But you do this from your heart." The men nod and smile knowingly.
Shortly, dinner is announced. The men and women pull up chairs around a large table in the dining room, while the children eat in the kitchen and TV room. The table is laid with a barley and vegetable soup, a barley salad dish called maftoul, stuffed salmon, chuck roast, roasted chicken, pita bread and the eggplant dip baba ganoush, which Hawa notes means "ticklish baby."
Normally, says Shihab Khatib, the menu would include more traditional dishes, such as lamb and stuffed grape leaves, "but we ate it so much this Ramadan, we've changed it."
After a few bites, the adults begin getting up one or two at a time to pray.
OBSERVANCE OF RAMADAN, Hawa says after he has prayed, is the fourth of five pillars of Islam. The others are belief in one God, praying five times a day, giving to charity and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ramadan itself includes all of those pillars but the last. During the month, for example, a man must give away five pounds of food for each person in his family, including himself. This also includes an unborn child if the mother is more than three months pregnant.
Fasting is perhaps the most outward demonstration of piety during the month. During the fast, nothing is to pass the supplicant's throat but air, says Shihab Khatib. Drinking water is forbidden, as is smoking.
Abdelkader Khatib recalls that, when he lived in Saudi Arabia for some years, laborers went home at noon all month because it was impossible to work in the heat without drinking water.
But food and drink are not the only indulgences from which one abstains during Ramadan. "You're fasting completely from everything," says Shihab Khatib. Lying and cheating are forbidden. Sex is forbidden during fasting hours. "Your thoughts have to be pure," he says.
Naim, who has wandered back into the room, notes that fighting and making fun are also discouraged. "Never, ever say bad words to people or talk bad about others. That's how Allah created them," he says. "Pretend other people are yourself." He notes that this attitude is recommended during the rest of the year, as well. "It doesn't mean when Ramadan is over, you can start making fun of people."
Hawa mentions that the sick, elderly and pregnant are not allowed to fast and that travelers may eat or drink during the day.
"So our religion is very easy," says Abdelkader Khatib. "Like we pray five times a day, but each prayer does not take but five minutes."
Those who are exempted from fasting must make up the fast later if they can, says Hawa. Those who cannot must make it up by feeding a hungry person for each day they did not fast.
Also, Shihab Khatib notes, women may not fast while menstruating "because they're not clean then."
As the table is cleared, Abdelkader Khatib explains that the inward gain from a month of piety is reliant on how the month is observed. "It has to come from inside," he saic. "God rewards you according to how you feel inside." If a Muslim has embraced the rituals and requirements, says Khatib, after the month is over, "you feel you are closer to God." However, he says, "If you did not do it right, there is no other way around it. It's a missed opportunity."
"You are trying to make God believe that you really believe in Him," says Shihab Khatib. He gives you a mind to decide. He wants to see that, deep in your heart, you believe in Him, that you fear nothing but Him."
"It's an opportunity for you to multiply your good deeds and wipe out sins you've done in the past," says Abdelkader Khatib, adding that a Muslim completes Ramadan prepared to keep a religious attitude for the rest of the year.
"If you don't have this month, you can start to stray," Shihab Khatib says. "Ramadan kind of brings you back into it and revives you."
FOR DESSERT, fruits and a rich pudding made from mangoes are served.
Shihab Khatib notes that the month of self-denial will be followed by a three-day feast holiday, called Eid al-Fitr. The morning after Ramadan is marked by a celebratory prayer, he says. "Then, everybody dresses in their best clothes and goes out to have breakfast with friends." During the next three days, he says, parents give their children money, candy and presents and take them on outings. Families drop in on each other.
Abdelkader Khatib mentions that Ramadan's exact dates can be a matter of debate. Islamic months begin and end on the new moon, but it is not always easy to determine exactly which night that is. He says Muslims in North America and Saudi Arabia sometimes disagree on the matter. "I, personally, follow Saudi Arabia, and I think the majority of people do this," he says, although he notes that others feel that North American technology has a better chance of determining the new moon.
After dessert, the men sit around the table eating nuts and drinking a tea made with sage. The talk turns to family history, and it comes out that the cousins' grandmother's first cousin, who was renamed Joseph Howard by immigration officials, founded the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., and their grandmother's sister founded the Mama Ayesha Restaurant, also in D.C.