Adam Alkhateeb was with family at the Newseum in the late morning of the fourth day of his Ramadan fast when his stomach started hurting — a lot.
But was it just normal hunger-pain, he was trying to figure out, or pain signaling something was really wrong? If he broke his fast for no good reason, he’d need to give money to the poor to make up for it, as is tradition. And he didn’t want to violate the sunup-to-sundown Ramadan fast.
“My mom said, ‘If your health is at risk, break the fast, but if it’s just because you want to eat, it’s not good to break it,’ ” said the 11-year-old, who lives in Fairfax City and has fasted two Ramadans before this one. “I just walked around a bit more and realized, I didn’t really feel sick. I am trying to get used to [fasting] so I will be ready when I’m really required to. . . . I was proud I did it.”
Muslims are the most diverse faith group in the United States, and views and practices related to fasting — and at what age children should participate — vary widely. But fasting during Ramadan is a core ritual of Islam, and it is for that reason that many children plunge with their parents into an ancient physical and spiritual test during the holiday, fasting 15 hours a day and waking at 3 a.m. to eat (before stumbling back to bed).
Ramadan requires mature skills, such as discerning the differences in various types of discomfort, beginning meals slowly and carefully when you feel like gorging, and seeing value in suspending — or cutting back — not only on food but other potential distractions from soulfulness such as trashy TV or music and too much nonsense on your smartphone (parents may struggle with the latter more than kids).
Some community leaders see more emphasis on American Muslim youth fasting as a way to boost the identities of a small religious minority. In recent years there has been an appearance of kid-friendly Ramadan commercial goods such as streamers and party bags. Some mosques have started having small celebrations for kids doing their first fast, and giving out certificates. Some Muslim newspapers have begun printing the photos of children who fast to honor them.
“I think it’s part of this whole idea: We need to make our kids, our American Muslim kids, they need to have that Muslim part . . . we want to show them, ‘This is part of your identity,’ ” said Minhaj Hasan, editor in chief of the Muslim Link, a newspaper and Web site covering the Washington and Baltimore-area Muslim communities. The Muslim Link about six years ago started running the feature at the end of Ramadan with as many as 150 children’s photos. “It’s part of a general trend of increased religiosity in the [Muslim] community. It’s a pride thing, like, ‘My kid did his first fast.’ ”
Ramadan, which began at the end of June and concludes about July 28 — the start and end dates on Islam’s lunar calendar can vary around the world — is the month when Muslims believe the Koran began to be revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Islamic teachings call for Muslims to start fasting about the time they reach puberty, which is interpreted differently depending on culture and adherence, and can range from age 7 to the late teens. Many American Muslims seem to start partial or full fasting about age 10.
Farkhunda Ali sees the obligatory age to start as 12, but was open when her 9-, 10- and 11-year-old sons showed interest. They thought it was exciting to wake before dawn to eat with their mother, a 35-year-old operating-room nurse, and her father. It made them feel grown up.
“They know it’s a practice to make ourselves disciplined. To understand there are people less fortunate than us,” said Ali, whose Brookland apartment has a large poster in the living room that says, “Live as if everything is a miracle.”
“When you fast, you can feel the suffering of a hungry person and therefore build compassion,” Ali said. “I never made them do it, but I’m open to the idea in a materialistic society.”
One night last week the boys and their sister, who is 6, sat in the living room as the yellow digital numbers on the Comcast box flicked closer to 8:42 p.m., when the day’s fast was done. Abdul, 9, was only fasting on weekends while he does soccer. Jannah, 6, talks excitedly about fasting and wakes up early with her brothers but doesn’t fast.
“It keeps you more calm,” said Ibrahim, 10, a boy with a big smile. “When you don’t eat you don’t have energy to be angry.”
“Yeah, I feel my angers can’t come out,” said his curly-haired brother Abdul, curled up in a big chair.
Yusuf, 11, and Ibrahim have strategies for getting through the day without food, including playing chess, cleaning the apartment or watching television.
“At this age I’d expect it to be hard for them,” said Ali. “It’s not supposed to be easy. We know it’s hard; that’s part of the discipline.”
As the sun goes down, she hands the children cups of cranberry juice, a way to slowly break the fast and not just fill their shrunken bellies. A single mother, Ali is creating Ramadan routines for her children, somewhat different from her childhood growing up in Northern Virginia with lots of relatives from Pakistan and India who would cook during the night. She cuts up watermelon on the kitchen table, and soon they are diving into Chinese takeout — chicken, rice and broccoli. On the weekend she’ll take the children, whose last name is McKenzie, to breakfasts with cousins in the suburbs.
One idea is the same: Part of fasting is about empathizing with the disadvantaged. Even Jannah understands that.
“We’re trying to feel what they’re feeling,” she says, putting a little hand to her heart. “They don’t have food, don’t have a house, don’t have a home, parents,” she says, her voice trailing off.
Adam’s sister, Layanne, said she started fasting two Ramadans ago, when she was going into sixth grade. Many students in her public school aren’t Muslim, so she gets asked a lot: Why aren’t you eating?
“I felt like, ‘This is something I can talk about because I know a lot about it. I feel proud,” she said of why she started fasting. “I liked the opportunity to be seeming older — it made me respected. People would say, ‘Wow!’ ”
Bilal, 10, and Bashir, 9, of Woodbridge told their parents this year that they wanted to try fasting. Their mother is a U.S.-born convert, but their father grew up practicing in Afghanistan and he asked them, “Are you sure?”
“They were very excited. I said, ‘It’s going to be long, are you sure you want to?’ Here [in the United States] everything is at your disposal at all times,” said Waheed Jami, who works in IT. “But they didn’t complain at all because they were so busy playing and reading. I was surprised. I remember complaining to my mom I was thirsty.”