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A Turning Point for Muslim Youths

RELIGION

Fasting for Ramadan marks a rite of passage for Southland youngsters, signifying the capacity for self-denial and the discipline of adulthood.

January 09, 1999|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With henna-stained hands, Momina Din followed the curvy, Arabic lettering in a Koran cradled in a carved wooden stand. As she read excerpts aloud, her grandmother, Bilquis Jehan, corrected her pronunciation and fussed over her, tucking tendrils of hair back into the sheer gold scarf covering the young girl's head.

Jehan, 65, came from Pakistan to attend to 10-year-old Momina during her first fast--called Roza Kushai in Jehan's native language of Urdu. It is a rite of passage for the young Muslim girl that welcomes her into the grown-up world of discipline and self-control.

Daytime fasting is required of devout Muslims during Ramadan, the holiest of Islamic holidays, which began Dec. 20 and will end in late January with a joyous breaking of the fast, called Id al-Fitir.

It is estimated that 1 billion Muslims around the world will take part in the monthlong fast by refusing all food and water from sunup to sundown to help teach them self-restraint. Ramadan celebrates the revelation of the Koran, Islam's holy book, to the prophet Muhammad.

A Rite of Passage

It is up to Muslim parents to decide when a child has become mature enough to appreciate what sacrificing all sustenance means.

A fast is required by all Muslims except children who have not reached puberty, the elderly and pregnant women. Muslim children are required to begin fasting at age 12, although some begin fasting as young as 6. Often, the pressure to fast comes from the children: They see it as a rite of passage, signifying the discipline and self-control of adulthood.

"Parents normally don't push their children too fast," said Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, located in Garden Grove. "The kids are the ones who get excited. There's peer pressure from other kids too."

On Sunday, the sun sank into the horizon as hundreds of Muslims gathered for daily prayer at the mosque at the Islamic Society. The call to prayer was followed by a party in honor of Momina's first fast.

As she sat in a chair on a platform decorated with streamers and lights, Momina paused to reflect on the moment.

"I can fast and stuff like that, like grown-ups do," said the Garden Grove girl, who admitted that she was also a bit nervous. "It's my first time and I'm, like, not used to it."

Although fasting is revered, it is also cause for concern. Zahida Aslam of Westminster said it is her 8-year-old daughter, Samara, who is determined to fast with her friends.

"I brought my daughter lunch," said Aslam, as she waited Thursday in Hill Elementary School's lobby with a lunch sack containing a banana and a hamburger for her daughter, who attends school with Momina. "I'm worried that she may get dehydrated, that she won't be able to study."

But the girl refused it.

"I want to fast," Samara said with a groan and a roll of her eyes. "With everybody else," she added.

Another of Momina's schoolmates, Sobia Saleem, 10, of Garden Grove had her first fast celebration when she was 6. "We fast because we need to feel how the poor feel," she said. "It teaches me patience. Usually, I'm not patient when I want to eat."

A Family Celebration

When youngsters fast for the first time, it is a significant celebration. Far-flung family members come together, bearing gifts and money for the child. Momina's cousin, Mubashir Ahmed of Las Vegas, also flew into town for the event, and spent hours preparing sweet delicacies that are made out of ricotta cheese, traditional snacks eaten at the end of the day's fast.

Momina proudly showed off her gifts, including a Winnie the Pooh watch, a mini-backpack and a Barbie Play-Set.

The biggest challenge to helping Muslim children keep the fast comes at lunchtime when they are at school because they are surrounded by other children opening lunch boxes and getting hot lunches from the school cafeteria.

The fasting can also take a visible toll. "Sometimes the kids are a little drowsy in the afternoon," said Hill Elementary School teacher David Hoppes, referring to Momina and the six other Muslim students in his classroom. "They get very thirsty. Not having fluids is the hardest on them."

Jerry Horkin, principal of Momina's school, said teachers are trained to be sensitive to fasting Muslim students.

Siddiqi said teachers and parents also monitor children who are fasting, adding that religious law permits Muslims to break the fast if they feel ill.

Momina has broken her fast only once--one day this week when she felt sick. But on Thursday she sat in stoic restraint next to a friend who ate vegetable spaghetti and drank strawberry flavored juice as they sat on a bench in the schoolyard.

The quiet fifth-grader said that not even her favorite food--pizza--will tempt her now that she has fasted and been indoctrinated into the adult world: "I feel proud of myself that I'm a Muslim."

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