Ramadan tradition can be challenging for young Muslims

Special to The Miami HeraldJuly 6, 2013 

Fasting has been weighing on Sana Motorwala's mind.

The 11-year-old Kendall girl wants to participate in Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic calendar when Muslims refrain from drinking and eating from sunrise to sunset. The practice is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Sana will try for the first time to complete the month's fast this year, when Ramadan begins at sunset Monday. Concerned about dehydration, she is temporarily dropping tennis camp and swimming classes because liquids -- water included -- are not permitted during the fasting period.

"I kind of feel excited about doing it," she says. "I will miss (tennis and swimming) but it's not like you're forever robbed of them. And it's only for one month, so you put up with it."

Sana is one of countless children who are balancing the demands of fasting during Ramadan with active, everyday lives. Muslims are required to participate in the fast once they reach puberty, but it's increasingly common for children to start earlier.

Maryaam Fatima, 9, says she first fasted last year.

"I'd seen other people and I thought, 'I should be doing this too,'"says Maryaam, who lives in Miami Gardens.

She says the fasting process wasn't as difficult as she'd expected.

"When you fast it's like in your heart," she says. "You're going more toward Allah."

During Ramadan, Maryaam's day typically revolved around prayer and reading the Quran.

"I don't play because it's not a month for play," she says.

Muslims eat twice daily during Ramadan, the morning meal of suhoor (before sunrise) and the evening meal of iftar (after sunset).

To have an easier time with fasting, says Andrea Allouche, a registered dietician at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine's Diabetes Research Institute, it's better to start the day with complex carbohydrates like whole grains rather than sugary cereals. Caffeine, along with fried and fatty food, should be avoided because they can foster dehydration, Allouche says.

"Try to stay out of the sun," she says. "Generally when you are fasting, you don't want to be outside doing all your regular activities."

Allouche recommends parents with younger children who are fasting watch for signs of dehydration, which include dry mouth, sleepiness, lightheadedness and a lack of sweat. "It could get dangerous for kids very quickly," she says.

People of any age with diabetes should consult their health care provider before deciding to fast, she says.

Abdul Kareem, 13, of Miami Gardens fasted for the first time about three years ago. His family converted to Islam five years ago from the Baptist faith.

Abdul changes his usual routine during Ramadan by reading the Quran more often and cutting back on playing basketball with his friends. Fasting has grown easier over time, he says.

"You get used to the fact that you have to do it but you don't get used to the being thirsty and hungry parts," he says.

He thinks of it as an internal competition.

"You know you can't drink water and at the end of the day you want to drink water, but you think it doesn't make any sense to break fast," Abdul says. "When you see food, it's like you can eat the food, but you don't want to because you'll fail Allah."

Ibrahim Siddiqui, 11, began fasting when he was 7.

"It's really easy when you start," says Ibrahim, a sixth grader at Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes. "The first time my mom told me to do it, I was like 'OK.' And then I had to do it every year. I did it for 30 days. I didn't miss one day of it."

In the beginning he would go into the kitchen several times a day and open the refrigerator.

"I'd remember every time I'd open the fridge that I'm fasting so I'd close it," he says.

Despite the lack of water, Ibrahim says he sometimes plays sports with friends during breaks from prayer and reading the Quran.

"I know in a couple of hours I am just go to the masjid (mosque) and eat. That's all I'm thinking about," Ibrahim says. "I don't care if I get sweaty outside."

The key, he says, is to shower. "The water -- it makes you cool down."

Ibrahim's mom, Rafat Jahangir, 40, says she's proud of the effort her son puts into his fast.

"We're trying to do a strong foundation," she says. "We are trying to teach our son the feeling people have when they live without food and water. We teach him to give to charity so he can help them."

The imam at the Islamic Center of Greater Miami in Miami Gardens says people should remember the reasons for the fast and the meaning behind Ramadan.

"It's a time to make up for shortcomings and if you've made some mistakes, now is time to repent and change yourself," says Imam Abdul Hamid Samra.

Muslims read the Quran during the month, pray and think about those less fortunate, he says

"An important reason why we fast is to put ourselves in the situation of those who are hungry and don't have food," Samra says. "People do a lot of charity work."

Sana, the 11-year-old from Kendall, first fasted when she was 8, for a few days out of the month.

"It was her choice and we let her do it but we were not quite sure," says her mother, Munira Motorwala, 50, a homemaker. "She likes to snack around and I thought, 'Will she be able to do it?' and she did it."

Sana's parents set a rule for that first fast: She was permitted to break her fast at any time if she felt she couldn't do it. That rule remains today.

Many Muslim parents allow their children to fast for a half day, every other day or only on weekends.

"I remember when I was little I'd do it once or twice in the month," Sana says, adding she felt fasting would make her feel more "grown up."

Her 16-year-old brother, Aarif, fasts, as do her mother and father, Safder, 54, a pharmacist.

Joining them in the month-long fast "was her decision,'" says her mother. "This wasn't forced on her and she may choose not to do it anymore in the middle and that would be OK with us. It's just great that she is doing it."

Being a habitual snacker, Sana says she tries to distract herself by reading, writing and playing with her Wii so she doesn't think about food.

"You think about chocolate, then you think about all these descriptive words and you're like, 'I want that now,'" she says.

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