HACKENSACK, N.J. —Fatin Habehh calls her children to the living room of their Teaneck, N.J., home as the sun begins to set. Hurry, her youngest child, Ibraheem, 8, urges his brothers and sisters. "It's already 8:09."
At exactly 8:11 p.m., sunset, they each bite into a date, the traditional food for breaking the Ramadan fast, and each family member is visibly delighted to have completed the day's fasting and to enjoy this sweet, satisfying reward.
Families repeat this ritual throughout Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, which began on Aug. 1. For Muslims of all sects and backgrounds, it's a month of appreciation for what they have and a reminder to reach out to those in need.
"I love it because of how it brings us all together," said 13-year-old Fatima Habehh, one of Habehh's six children, who range in age from 8 to 14. "Every night we go for a special prayer — it's nice to see all your friends and family," said Fatima, who said she started fasting little by little at the age of 5.
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Children are exempt from the fast until they reach puberty, but many younger children are eager to imitate their parents and older siblings by taking part in the tradition. Fatin Habehh, who said she began the fast at age 7, likes that her children want to be part of the tradition, but she's careful to be sure they stay hydrated and get all of their daily nutrients, a task made easier because they're home for the summer where she can monitor them during the daily fast.
"I remember I started when I was 6 years old — it made me feel like one of the older guys," said Mohammed Habehh, 14, her oldest child, who leads the family in prayer each evening.
Many Muslims rise at 4 a.m. in order to eat breakfast for the day and to say prayers at dawn before starting the day's fast. Because Ramadan begins about 11 days earlier each year, it's possible over time for Muslims to have fasted during all the seasons.
During Ramadan, observant Muslims — aside from avoiding cursing or anger or other evil behaviors — abstain from eating and drinking from dawn until dusk, an obligation that is complicated by the hot and dry days of summer.
The fast may seem daunting to an outsider, but for many Muslims it's a privilege, not a burden. But while fasting is a major part of Ramadan, Habehh said Ramadan also is a time of moral healing and rebuilding one's spiritual strength.
"Ramadan is all about training your self-discipline in order to be a better person," said Habehh, who has made it her Ramadan mission this year to focus on educating families about the importance of foster care in the Muslim community.
Kashif Chaudhry, president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association chapter in Clifton, N.J., said he also wanted to join the fast at an early age. When he was young, his parents would let him fast after breakfast, fed him lunch at the usual time, and permitted him to fast again until dinnertime. While he ate more or less normally during the day, his parents let him feel as if he had "fasted twice."
Ramadan is a time of good deeds, and for Chaudhry, that incentive makes organizing people to do charitable works a simpler task. He said the community benefits most during Ramadan.
"It is a time about spirituality, doing good deeds, working on ourselves and helping others," said Chaudhry, who is organizing the "Muslims for Life" blood drive that he hopes will bring in 10,000 units of blood this September in honor the victims of 9/11.
"We are very fortunate that Ramadan is taking place the month before our blood drive, volunteers have been easy to come by and the community has been eager to help," said Chaudhry.
All faiths could learn from the "beautiful balance between looking within and reaching out to others" that Ramadan represents, said the Rev. Cari Keith, pastor of the Allwood Community Church in Clifton.
"I have a huge appreciation for the dedication to faith and to God that Muslims exhibit this time of year," said Keith, whose church has organized numerous events with the Muslim community with the collaboration of the Interfaith Dialog Center, a Turkish-American nonprofit organization that endeavors to promote respect and mutual understanding among all faiths and cultures.
She said it's important for everyone, religious or not, to be grateful and share with others. "In that sense we can all learn from Ramadan," said Keith.