Local Muslim families intertwine Ramadan’s rituals with American culture
BY NIRAJ WARIKOO
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
In front of the fireplace in their Canton home, the Ahmed family has four shoeboxes, one for each of their kids, packed with small toys like “Star Wars” figures and Hot Wheels. They call them Ramadan boxes, an idea the parents came up with after noticing Christmas stockings.
And while such boxes aren’t mentioned in the Quran or in the stories about Islam’s prophet, they are a unique way that Muslims in the U.S. are practicing their faith as the try to pass on warm Ramadan memories to their children. Like Jews before them, Muslims are now wrestling with maintaining traditions in a Christian-majority society.
“We want them to say Ramadan is fun also,” said Dr. Muzammil Ahmed, 43. “To make sure they don’t feel they’re being deprived because we don’t celebrate Christmas. We can have just as much fun during Ramadan.”
The aim, say Ahmed and his wife, Dr. Asra Ahmed, 41, is to make Ramadan meaningful and enjoyable for their children, ages 3 to 13. Such efforts are being seen in Muslim homes across metro Detroit, where American-born children are incorporating modern culture with their faith. Fasting and daily prayers can be challenges, but the boxes are one way families can hook kids in.
The boxes started in the Ahmed family five years ago, when Ramadan was close to the Christmas season. (Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims, moves around because it’s based on a lunar calendar. It ends Sept. 10 this year.) Asra Ahmed came up with the idea after trying to think of a way to offer her children an alternative to Christmas, when toys and gift-buying become a big part of the culture.
Like Christmas stockings, the boxes are filled with toys, and the occasional $1 bill as a reward for the children when they’re good about reciting prayers or observing Ramadan.
Some Muslim leaders hadn’t heard of Ramadan boxes, but say it’s a neat idea.
“America is evolving to have its own Ramadan culture,” said Dawud Walid, assistant imam at Masjid Wali Muhammad, a Detroit mosque. “Traditions often start by word of mouth.”
Those traditions are changing as families find ways to intertwine the rituals of Ramadan with their American lives. The Ahmed family even draws on a Mexican-American tradition, the piñata, to celebrate the end of Ramadan, when Muslims often sacrifice a goat or sheep. But the Ahmeds instead celebrate with a piñata shaped like a sheep or goat filled with candy for the kids.
Fasting is another practice they incorporate into their routines.
Ramadan requires observant, healthy adults to abstain from food and liquids from sunrise to sunset; young kids, pregnant and nursing women, and those who are sick or traveling long distances are exempt.
In Muslim-majority countries, work and social schedules shift during the Ramadan season, making it easer to adjust. But in the U.S., where Muslims are a minority, it’s much more of a challenge, because they must work and go to school while fasting all day.
Still, the Ahmed children are starting to fast too, albeit in increments.
Sumayyah, 13, now fasts completely from sunrise to sunset. Zayd, 10, fasts many days, but not when he has soccer practice. Safwan, 8, fasted on a couple of days and experiments with half-fasts, where he might skip a meal.
As the Muslim population increases in metro Detroit, young Muslims feel more comfortable with the idea of fasting, say local families. The Ahmed children live close to a mosque in Canton and so are often exposed to others who are fasting.
“It’s hard sometimes, but you get used to it,” said Zayd Ahmed, 10, who wants to fast.
In Walid’s family, his oldest child, 8, said at the beginning of Ramadan: “Daddy, I want to try to fast for Ramadan,” Walid said.
Walid said he told him he wasn’t old enough, but let him fast for part of the day. At dinner last week in a pizza place, his kids voluntarily decided to give some money to a homeless woman in the spirit of Ramadan, when charity is encouraged.
On a weekday night, the Ahmed family gathered around their dining table to break fast with fruits, juice, milky tea and dates — items traditionally eaten during Ramadan dinners. Later, the kids scarfed down pizza and were to have an Indian dish later, chicken masala.
Asked why she fasts, the daughter replied with the reason cited in Islamic tradition:
“To get the experience of people who don’t have food and aren’t lucky to have what we have.”
Later, the boys scrambled toward the fireplace to lift the lids off their Ramadan boxes and peek inside.