“Isn’t it great?” I asked excitedly when one of my girlfriends pulled Magid Fasts for Ramadan from my bookshelf and flipped through its pages.
“Hmm…” she mused noncommittally.
“What do you mean?” I asked incredulously. “Don’t you think it’s great to find a children’s picture book about Islam and Muslims in mainstream publishing? It’s so rare, and here we have a book about Ramadan published by Clarion Books and illustrated by E.B. Lewis!”
She shook her head sadly. “To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed. I can’t relate with the characters in this book; it’s so obviously written by someone outside the faith. I mean, a story about a boy whose family discourages him from fasting, whose older sister is upset about having to fast, and whose ‘happy ending’ is one where he and his sibling are congratulating each other about not having to fast for Ramadan after all…tell me, do you really see yourself in this?”
This conversation took place in 1997, a time when picture books about Muslims were indeed few and far between but also a time when I was just starting out on my parenting journey and had no idea what experiences lay ahead. My girlfriend already had a few more years of motherhood under her belt, so it wasn’t until my boys were older that I realized she was indeed correct — I really didn’t see myself or my kids or my community in the plot line of this book after all…and neither did anyone else I knew.
In interfaith discussions, one of the questions that often comes up is “How do you get your children to fast?” And many of us usually respond by laughing, “The question is really how do we get them not to fast?”
The author Mary Matthews got one thing right: like the mother and father in her picture book Magid Fasts for Ramadan, pretty much everyone I know has children who have been chomping at the bit to take on this third pillar of Islam before their parents have felt confident that they were actually physically ready for the challenge.
In the early years (anywhere between 6 to 8), parents try to find a compromise with their eager children by telling them that they can “fast” by skipping lunch or by just abstaining from water or by fasting until noon — anything to help kids feel that they too are an integral part of the communal participation in fasting. I remember one mother told her son that he could only fast on weekends while another father told his daughter she could fast every other day, but no one ever insisted on a complete moratorium on fasting. “Slow and steady wins the race” was the mantra.
What is it that makes kids want to take on a daunting responsibility that would intimidate most adults?
“Precisely that!” a girlfriend of mine asserts. “Knowing they’re accomplishing a feat that most grown-ups feel is too difficult actually makes kids want to rise to the challenge. Tell them ‘it’s too hard’ and they’re going to want to prove you wrong!”
“It’s a rite of passage,” another convert friend of mine contends. “When I was growing up, we kids wanted to race against the clock and act older than our age; we wanted to grow up before our time. Hence, you saw kids smoking and drinking and engaging in sexual activities — all signs of ‘maturity’ and ‘adulthood’ in their eyes. But in Islam, kids aren’t getting those mixed messages of ‘no, you can’t, but yes, he can’. They learn that it doesn’t matter if you’re 12 or 21 or 65 or 82 — a practicing Muslim will not smoke or drink or have sex outside of marriage no matter his/her age. What’s haraam (prohibited) for one is haraam for all. But fasting? Only the grown-ups get to fast, so here you witness the same old phenomena of little ones wanting to join the Big Kid Club, except that fasting is suddenly the forbidden fruit!”
Her theory has merit. I have seen it with my own boys and their friends and classmates. We have never had to convince our children to fast, alhamdulillah (praise be to God); it was always something the kids looked forward to being “allowed” to do one day. In order for children to acquire this attitude of anticipation and enthusiasm, however, it’s important to first create an environment where fasting is the norm and where fasting is seen as bringing about satisfaction and joy — even when fasters are known to be feeling tired and thirsty and hungry while doing something so “satisfactory” and “joyful”.
In my children’s community, a love for the month of Ramadan is cultivated using different means. We begin the month by taking kids out in large groups to scenic locations in order to sight the new moon. Throughout the month, we celebrate iftars (fast-breaking meals) in one another’s homes and create annual traditions around the foods we eat (in our home, we stuff medjool dates with cream cheese and toffee bits; my cousin serves milk shakes). We decorate our homes with lights and banners and count down the fasts using an Eid advent calendar. We deliver cookie packages to the neighbors along with notes explaining the significance of the month. We play Quran on the stereo system and allow God’s words to reverberate throughout the home. At least once in the month, a large group of us shows up at our local 24-hour International House of Pancakes for suhoor (pre-dawn meal). (This tradition has become so popular that the restaurant manager has begun hiring a double night shift just for the month of Ramadan!) On Eid morning, the children wake to gift baskets at the foot of their beds and bedrooms filled with sparkly balloons. And while we never lure children into fasting with promises of treats and prizes, we do definitely make a point of publicly honoring children who have completed their fasts for the first time.
It’s crucial in the early years to have children associate only positive memories with the month of Ramadan and to form an attachment to this special time. The truth is our religion is work. The practice of our faith requires real give, real sacrifice, real digging to find out what we’re made of. We are hoping to develop kids who will grow up to be believers who will say, “We hear and we obey!” when fulfilling God’s commandments (of which fasting is only one).
I happen to be acquainted with one or two adults who — for various reasons — no longer practice the religion nor believe in its tenets although they were originally raised in the faith. It has always fascinated me, however, to witness a certain sense of nostalgia and a feeling of being “left out” in them when they realize that 1.6 billion Muslims are foregoing food and drink and struggling together while they watch on. Ramadan really is a time that unites and it’s important to include children in that unity as soon as possible. They should feel the sting at the thought of separation.
There is nothing that teaches patience and perseverance to our children like the act of fasting. When we urge our little ones to go ahead and break their fasts — reassuring them that no one will judge them and reminding them that they are allowed relief from their discomfort — and they shake their heads and continue to strive on, the lessons they learn are immeasurable. When we teach our children the Hadith Nabawi (saying of the Prophet Muhammad), “Whoever does not give up lies and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink”, they learn to avoid lying and fighting and backbiting and the character they end up building as a result is simply invaluable. It behooves us to also teach our children the Hadith Qudsi (saying of Allah as relayed by the Prophet Muhammad): “Every good deed of the son of Adam is for himself, except fasting, for fasting is Mine and it is I Who give reward for it.” We point out to kids that every good action benefits the self in one way or the other and is able to be witnessed (and thus applauded) by people, except for fasting. “You can cheat on fasting all you want,” I tell my boys. “Only Allah and you know the truth. Fasting is purely between you and Him and He’ll be the One to reward you for it one day, insha’Allah (God willing).” We also teach them the Hadith Nabawi: “The fasting person has two joys to delight him: when he breaks his fast, he is joyful with his meal, and when he meets his Lord, he is joyful with his fast.” We remind them that they are made up of both body and soul and both of those facets of their being will witness the delights of fasting, first in this life and second in the next, insha-Allah.
During the course of writing this article, my 11-year-old son Raahim picked up Magid Fasts for Ramadan for the first time and read it while I typed away. Once done, he closed the book and asked me, “His sister doesn’t want to fast? And neither does he?”
“Yup,” I sighed, shaking my head the way my girlfriend had so many years ago. “Can you believe that? What do you think?”
“So tell me, why do you fast?”
“I dunno, I just do,” he shrugged and lay his head back, an obvious signal that he wasn’t interested in getting into a deep conversation with me at the moment. But then he suddenly sat up and said, “I fast because everyone fasts and because it’s good practice. I’m going to have to fast when I’m older, so I might as well try now. If you didn’t give me the option — like the sister didn’t have an option — maybe I wouldn’t want to fast either. But I have a choice and I choose to fast. And besides, I know Allah is writing it down for me.”
That’s all, folks.