This story is part of an occasional series on world religions. It originally published in June 2016.
At 8:35 on a recent Wednesday evening, the sun sets in Washington, and the call to prayer resounds. In Arabic, a man recites a declaration of faith, practically singing as he praises God — Allah, as he is known in Arabic. The man is signaling to the hundred members at Masjid Muhammad that it is time for two very important events: the evening prayer and the breaking of the day’s fast.
Most of the men, women and children at Masjid Muhammad, a mosque, have not eaten or drunk in nearly 15 hours. They have been fasting since dawn, praying and reading the Koran in snatches while at work or school. They are hungry, but it is Ramadan — a holy month of fasting and prayer for Muslims around the world — and they say their hunger is not important.
“Fasting,” explains Imam Talib Shareef, “makes you conscious of human life, aware of universal human needs. Regardless of your race, ethnicity or nationality, you have to eat, drink and sleep,” important daily tasks that are carefully controlled during Ramadan. Waking up early to eat before dawn and fasting during the day forces you to think about the essentials in life, he says.
Shareef heads Masjid Muhammad, built in 1960 and one of the oldest mosques in Washington. He wears a black kufi, a short, brimless hat, and leads daily prayer services for the mosque’s 1,500 members, most of whom are black.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is considered to be the month when the Koran was first revealed to Muhammad, a prophet and the central figure of Islam. The Islamic calendar uses slightly fewer days than the Western calendar of January through December, so Ramadan occurs at a different time each year. This year, most Muslims are observing Ramadan from May 17 through June 16. The day after Ramadan ends is a holiday, Eid al-Fitr, during which families feast and give gifts.
Fasting isn’t the only thing encouraged during Ramadan.
“You try to be the best person you can be,” says Asiya Khokhar, one of about a dozen kids at the prayer service. “You try and be nice and polite to other people and try not to fight and yell.”
Muslims are expected to pray five times a day and read all of the Koran during Ramadan. Asiya, 12, says she feels “more spiritual, more focused and more happy” during the month.
Members of Masjid Muhammad break their fast with a traditional meal called an “iftar,” which is offered for free at the mosque every night during Ramadan. Everyone has water and dates, a fruit common in Africa and the Middle East, and sheds their shoes to take part in a service in the mosque’s prayer hall. Women stand in the back, their heads covered by scarves called “hijabs.”
The service is in Arabic (many kids take classes at the mosque to learn the language), but Shareef switches to English for a short sermon. “Help people. Don’t be a burden on people,” he says. “This is the month where we change habits.”
Evening prayer is followed by a larger meal: chicken, rice, salad, watermelon and a slice of cake. Second helpings are discouraged in the name of moderation.
Fasting is hard, many kids say, but you get used to it. Khaled Mohamed, 15, has been fasting since he was about 3. (Most kids start at 12 or 13.) “In winter, it’s very easy to fast,” he says, “because all you’re thinking about is trying to keep warm during the day.”
One helpful trick Khaled has learned: telling his friends he’s fasting for the month so that they don’t eat around him. “It’s easier that way.”
Masjid (mass-jeed) Another word for mosque, the Islamic place of worship.
Imam The prayer leader at a mosque.
Muhammad The founder of Islam. Muslims believe that he received the word of God through revelations that are written down in the Koran. He died in 632.
Koran The sacred scripture of Islam. It contains the basic beliefs of Islam and references biblical figures such as Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.