Local Time

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Small sacrifices

By ANDREA USEEM

Religion News Service


Christmas has Santa Claus and costumed pageants; Easter has pastel
baskets and chocolate bunnies. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that
began on Oct. 4, has yet to acquire such a sugary, child-pleasing veneer.
During the holy month, many Muslim kids across the country exhibit a
self-discipline not often associated with children as they aspire to
abstain from food and drink, just as their parents and older siblings do.

Although this desire to please God is admirable, Muslim leaders say
that young people are not small adults and shouldn't be treated as such.
That's why Muslim youth leaders across the country are working
especially hard this Ramadan to meet the special needs of young children and
teen-agers. Children are obliged to fast only after they reach puberty,
according to Islamic law. When they want to join in much earlier, it's up
to parents to provide guidance.

"My 6-year-old refuses to eat her lunch some days because she wants to
do what everyone else is doing," said Asma Mobbin-Uddin of Columbus,
Ohio, a pediatrician and mother of three. Many parents allow young
children to fast anywhere from an hour to half a day, as a chance to practice
the discipline they will later be required to follow for longer
periods.

Afeefa Syeed, principal of the Al-Fatih Academy, a private Islamic
school in Herndon, Va., said that the prophet Muhammad recommended that
children under age 7 learn through play without the threat of discipline.
Between 7 and 14, kids need to know that they are not children anymore,
"and God takes them seriously," Syeed said. After 14, they are nearly
grown-up, and adults should treat them as "friends," or equals.

To translate that wisdom into practice, Syeed takes her older
elementary students to meet and assist poor people in their community during
Ramadan. "At first I felt I should shelter the kids, because they are
young," Syeed said. "But now I see that they are learning about their
obligations to the world, so they become less self-centered."

That sense of religious and social obligation was palpable during a
pre-Ramadan discussion with fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders at Al-Fatih
Academy. All 10 students said they planned to fast every day, from
sunrise to sunset, just like adults. "I want to feel how poor people do
when they don't have food," said Yusuf Al-Barzinji, 11.

While Muslims must abstain from food, drink, intimate relations and
even cigarettes during the fast, they are also urged to avoid getting
angry. For Aisha Farouq, 10, fasting means working hard not to fight with
her brother. "It's a test of my patience," she said. Farouq also said
she hopes to read the entire Quran this month.

For teen-agers, who often have rigorous academic and athletic schedules
at high school, Ramadan brings greater challenges, requiring students
to dig deeper into their faith.

Uneeb Qureshi, a junior at Thomas S. Wooton High School in Rockville,
Md., said that fasting not only makes it difficult to concentrate on
tests but also hurts him as an athlete when he competes at track meets.

Some Muslim teen-agers choose to break their fasts to compete in
sporting events. But Qureshi said he accepts the hardship. "It's my duty [to
fast], and I just have to live with it. I imagine how it is for people
who have no choice, because they have nothing to eat," Qureshi said.

The commitment many young people want to bring to the holy month is
often not matched by youth-centered programming at local mosques.
"Sometimes adults forget about children because they are just thinking about
themselves," said Bambade Abdullah, principal of the Chicago Metropolitan
Education Center, a private school that primarily serves Muslim
students. Special evening prayers during Ramadan -- which involve long
recitations of the Quran and sermons interpreting those passages -- can be
boring for young people, Abdullah said. "Adults explain the Quran from
their own point of view," she said.

At her mosque in Chicago, young people gather once a week during
Ramadan with the imam, or religious leader. "They can talk about how Ramadan
is going for them -- not just fasting, but dealing with anger and peer
pressure and all the other things that go on in high school."

Hossam Aljabri, a youth leader and head of the Muslim American Society
of Boston, said that for the first time this year, Boston-area mosques
will host Ramadan evening prayers just for young people.

"The teens will lead the prayers and take turns giving the commentary
in between," Aljabri said. "The focus is not so much on having long
prayers -- which adults sometimes enjoy -- but having discussions and even
contests to keep it interesting for them." Chapters of the Muslim
American Society in Texas, New York and California are organizing similar
youth-led evening prayers this year, Aljabri said, in addition to
all-night youth-only prayer sessions at local mosques that resemble sleep-over
parties.

"The best way to involve kids is to train them and entrust them with
leadership," said Russell Madyun, a former imam and teacher at the Sister
Clara Muhammad school in Washington. "That doesn't happen enough in our
community."

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