When Dr. Reshma Khan moved to the U.S. from India in 1998, she left her large Muslim family to live, ultimately, in a Holy City known for its steepled skyline and huge Christian influence.
Quran passages describe fasting
Several verses from the Quran describe fasting during Ramadan:
"O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint."
"(Fasting) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (Should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it (with hardship), is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that will give more, of his own free will, it is better for him. And it is better for you that ye fast, if ye only knew."
"Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful."
So, the mother of three set about studying the Quran and her faith's traditions. Given her children attend public school and have few Muslim peers outside of their mosque, religious teaching would fall to her and her husband.
Ramadan commemorates the time when Muslim faithful believe Allah sent the Angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad to give him the teachings of the Quran.
During this monthlong observance, Muslims worldwide who have reached puberty are required to fast during daylight hours. Exceptions include men and women who are too old or too ill to fast, people who are traveling, women in the advanced stages of pregnancy and women who are menstruating or breastfeeding.
Ramadan can be compared to the Christian observance of Lent, as it is a time for inner reflection, renewed devotion to God and self-control.
Five daily prayers must be offered for the day's Ramadan fast to have meaning. Reading the entire Quran during the month is strongly recommended.
The recitation of the Taraweeh prayer, or night prayer following the obligatory fifth daily prayer, also is strongly recommended.
This year, Ramadan lasts from the evenings of June 28 to July 28.
Muslims celebrate the end of the fast with the joyous festival of Eid Al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast. They attend special congregational prayers that morning.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, which is based on the moon. The Western dates of the holiday move up about 10 days every year.
At no time is that more true than now, during a major holy month for the world's 1.6 billion Muslims: Ramadan. One of the Five Pillars of Islam, it is a month of required fasting and intense renewal of faith and holy behavior.
Every day during Ramadan, which this year started June 28, Muslims abstain from food, drinks and other worldly needs (including sex). It is obligatory for all who have reached puberty, with exceptions made for people who are seriously ill, breast-feeding, pregnant, traveling and others.
Still, for most, Ramadan means no food or liquid from dawn to sunset, which on these scorching Lowcountry summer days runs from about 6:20 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
But when the fast breaks? Ramadan becomes a time of celebration, family meals and intense prayer.
After this year's first day of fasting, Khan and her husband, Dr. Ahsan Khan, sit in their Mount Pleasant living room with their children.
Their oldest child is 11 and has fasted all day. Their two other children, ages 10 and 6, go for less with an eye toward lasting all day soon.
They all watch a large digital clock, mounted above a silent big-screen TV, as the minutes tick toward 8:32 p.m., when this day's fast ends.
Just minutes more to go.
"Look at the time!" their middle child grins, hopping up.
It's just after lunch, with the midday sun sweltering down, when a dozen men file into the Central Mosque of Charleston on King Street. They remove their shoes before entering a large prayer room and stand silently, shoulder to shoulder, in a row.
Behind them await dozens of plastic water bottles that will be opened when the sun sets seven hours from now. But for the moment, these worshipers avoid earthly distractions from serving Allah, an Arabic term for "the God."
With 500 members, this is region's largest mosque and is home to black and white American Muslims along with others from nations as diverse as Pakistan, Morocco, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Russia and Sudan.
The midday worshippers are joined by two Muslim religious leaders from Egypt visiting for the holy month.
One, Imam Amr Shahat, has taken a break from his doctoral studies in archeology in Memphis. The other, Sheik Gamal Al Farkh, is a "reciter," one known for his authentic pronunciation of the Quran verses as written in seventh-century Arabic.
His voice, intoning one of five daily prayers, echoes through the prayer room, once a church sanctuary. Because Ramadan isn't just about fasting.
The goal of all Muslims fasting this month is to achieve "taqwa." Shahat describes it as "God consciousness," an awareness and obedience to God.
"It's a yearly chance for believers to refresh and raise up their faith to God and the meaning of taqwa," Shahat says. "This is extra training."
More than just foregoing food and drink, Ramadan is about purifying the soul, teaching discipline, feeding the hungry and communing with God. It is a time to abstain from all kinds of unhealthy habits and to avoid gossip, pettiness, obscenity, evil thoughts and decidedly other unholy behaviors.
It's being mindful not just of the stomach, but also the eyes and mouth.
"Everything in you has to fast," Shahat says.
So, no short tempers allowed just because one is hungry and thirsty. Ramadan is about behaving in ways pleasing to God, and petty bickering and grumping won't cut it.
'It's not easy'
The pre-dawn meal before each day's fast begins is called the suhoor. During Ramadan, Reshma rises each morning at 4 a.m. to prepare a family meal that the rest will rise to eat around 4:30 a.m. Then they read the Quran and pray before starting to fast.
Most go back to bed. However, Reshma is a gynecologist, and her appointments start early. So, she heads to work.
She and her husband, Ahsan, both work at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center where he is a nuclear medicine physician and Reshma a gynecologist. Reshma also runs the Shifa Free Clinic, a nonprofit in Mount Pleasant that provides free gynecologic services to uninsured and underinsured women.
People often ask how they can fast all day for a month.
"It's not easy," Ahsan says. "You get hungry and thirsty, but you build up a tolerance."
Lifelong Muslims like them - and now their children - ease into it.
Their second-grader Ayesha is fasting for four hours a day this year, often longer. Fifth-grader Aasim starts Ramadan fasting five hours a day and within a week is going all day for the first time in his life. It is cause for celebration.
Ameen, a seventh-grader, already fasts all day. Not getting easily frustrated when he's hungry is the hardest part, he says. But it's worth it.
"It makes me feel really good that I can do the whole fast for God," Ameen says.
When Reshma was in India, sirens and the mosques' call to prayer rang out to alert people to prayer times.
Now, living in Mount Pleasant, she takes on teaching her children herself. Explaining things once routine has deepened her understanding.
"I want them to learn (Ramadan) is more than just that I can't eat," Reshma says. "It is so much more. You think, 'I am doing this only for the sake of God.'"
All three children have created colorful posters with age-appropriate goals regarding faith and behavior practiced intensely during Ramadan to carry into the rest of their year.
Aasim aims to build his faith, play fewer video games and spend more time with his family. Ameen plans to read the entire Quran, one of its 30 parts each day. He also is seeking a closer relationship with God and aims to achieve peace with his siblings.
"It's like this intense training and reminder month," Reshma says. "It's to gear up again if you have relaxed too much."
Then, once the sun goes down, the iftar celebration begins.
Breaking the fast
Once the fast is broken with traditional fresh dates, it is time to pray.
Reshma and her daughter appear, their heads covered. The boys wear traditional white ankle-length, long-sleeved robes called dishdasha.
Each family member retrieves a folded prayer blanket and spreads it on the living room carpet facing a northeastern corner. They form a pyramid shape.
The Khans ask Ameen to lead the prayer. He stands at the front, facing the darkening blue-black sky beyond their back deck. Behind him stand his father and brother, then his mother and sister, all close together.
With no books or pages in front him, his young voice breaks the silence with prayers. Intermittently, heads bowed, the small group answers him.
They prostrate to show reverence, pause and rise again several times.
It's a quiet, simple family moment before God.
After praying, the Khans try to keep the evening meal healthy but not lavish, so that food doesn't claim the focus from prayer. Many Muslims enjoy large feasts to celebrate iftar.
Next, the family will drive downtown to the mosque for hour-long nightly prayers at 10 p.m. This time, worshippers will open all of those bottles of water to rehydrate for another day.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
The Khan family uses a calendar to note the times of prayer.×
At a prescribed time each evening, the Khan family breaks the fast with a date and usually water.×
Dr. Reshma Khan started teaching the children Arabic when they each were 4 years old.×
Reshma and Ahsan Khan encouraged their children to write their goals during Ramadan.×