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Ramadan may be a time of reflection and gratitude for a fifth of the world's population, but how do Muslim children fit into the equation? In many Muslim households, children join their parents in abstaining from food and drink during the day, and that can be especially complicated for young kids during the school year when school and social activities include friends who are not Muslim.

So for this week's parenting segment, we're talking about how Muslim families are balancing their children's religious obligations with academic and social ones. I'd like to welcome Doctor Asma Mobin-Uddin. She's a mother of three and wrote the award-winning book, "A Party in Ramadan." Jameel Johnson is the father of three, and Asra Nomani is a TELL ME MORE parenting contributor, and she's the mother of one child. Welcome to all of you.

Dr. ASMA MOBIN-UDDIN (Author, "A Party in Ramadan"): Thank you.

Mr. JAMEEL JOHNSON: Thank you.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI: Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Doctor Asma Mobin-Uddin, I should say that in addition to being a children's book author, you're also a pediatrician. Now, there are a number of groups who are exempted from the fasting, if you're ill, if you're elderly, if you're traveling, and children are not compelled, at least young children. What does the Qur'an say, or what is thought about when children should begin observing?

Dr. MOBIN-UDDIN: That's right, Jennifer. Young children don't have the obligation to fast. Generally, after puberty is the time that the obligations of the faith become a responsibility for people who are observant of the faith.

Now, young children, they may like to practice fasting with their families. They may enjoy, you know, doing different things to observe Ramadan, including maybe fasting shorter times or participating occasionally in the fast. But the obligation comes after puberty. So basically, you're talking about teens and older when you're talking about people who are supposed to fast according to the faith.

LUDDEN: Jameel Johnson, you have two sons who were in Islamic school, but they're now attending public high school this week for the first time. How are they going to observe Ramadan in their new school?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, this is their first time that they will be in a non-Islamic environment during the month of Ramadan. So one of the things that I told them, they're both football players - and one thing that I told them before we got out of the car was I said, do you know how you have pre-season training before the season starts? And they said yes. I said, well, you know how you go to college to prepare yourself for a job? And they said, yes. I said, well, for 11 years we've been preparing you to be able to make the kind of decisions that a Muslim is supposed to make.

Now you have to take all that training, all that learning and put it into place in various circumstances. And I said, if you're ever in doubt, then hear daddy's voice in the back of your head telling you what you should be doing. And I said, and better yet, hear the words of the Prophet Muhammad Sala Salam as you're dealing with this.

You know, children want to do what adults do, so they hear about Ramadan, they hear about it at home, they know mommy and daddy are fasting, so they also want to fast. Early on they start out by going a few hours, you know, daddy, I fasted between breakfast and lunch. Well, that's kind of like everyday, you know. But for them it means something. So when they got a little bit older, they decided they wanted really try and fast the whole day. And like my sister Asma said, you don't force them but you encourage them. This way it becomes a thing they're used to by the time they become older.

LUDDEN: So going to the public system, did they have any qualms? Were they thinking, maybe this is going to be a little more difficult? Maybe we shouldn't do it this year or no?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, no. They know that fasting for them as a 14 or 15-year-old is an obligation.

LUDDEN: Do they have football practice this week?

Mr. JOHNSON: They do have football practice. They started football practice in the beginning of the summer. But for them, this is not their first time playing football and going through Ramadan. They went through the same thing last year.

LUDDEN: You don't have a supply of food just in case they start feeling faint out there on the field or…

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, what they are told is if they do begin to feel faint, if they have any issues, let the coach know. The coach, I make the coaches know ahead of time, they're Muslims and they're going to be fasting, so they may have to take it easy. But I have to admit, I was very proud of my boys last year. They went through all the drills, they fasted all day, and they did not complain, not once.

LUDDEN: Asra Nomani, your son is younger, but in general you don't like the idea of children fasting during Ramadan, is that right?

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah, I don't and, you know what we're hearing in this conversation is, you know, this assumption that there is a monolithic understanding about fasting and children. I think that there - we have to acknowledge that there's people like me, there's Muslims like me, there are scholars out there who challenge this assumption.

In my estimation, if I was any parent and I woke my child up at five in the morning and said that you're not going to eat or drink water for 15 hours, day after day, you'd probably call Child Support Services on me. Now, I don't think that religion should trump common sense.

We have children in our school systems who, through this romanticizing of the fasting tradition, are passing out, are dehydrated, are not able to, you know, they use this as an excuse not to participate in P.E. It's the same continuum that allows parents to use religion then to deny children medical treatment when they're in emergency rooms. And so, I'm the pushback here. I'm the one who does not believe that there is this romantic experience of all children.

I know all parents are well-intentioned but I also think that there's a social and health cost that comes when you have children in school, studying for PSATs, under stress. And, you know, I went on Fatwa-Online.com, you know, and it's the Saudi sheikhs who are putting out this very clear edict and message that it is obligatory of children who've reached the age of puberty to fast. And their language is scary because they say like, for example, if the children don't pray, beat them so that they pray.

So this is what I'm - I know that all parents aren't like this and certainly, the parents who are speaking here, you know, believe in the wellbeing of their children, but I just say that, you know we have to have some common sense in all of this also.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking with Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin, Asra Nomani and Jameel Johnson about balancing social and religious obligations during Ramadan. Jameel, what do you make of Asra's comments?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, first of all, if someone has - whether it be a child or an adult, if they have a real exception for fasting in a sense of it makes them ill, in a sense of they're not strong enough to do it, and it doesn't make a difference if you're six years old or 60 years old, then there are expiations for that.

But, like you asked me about my boys playing football and fasting, and she mentions common sense concerns, well the common sense concern, for one who says that they believe in Allah and his messenger, is that the obligations of the faith come before football. So, if my boys could not fast and play football too, then football would have to wait and they would fast first because their participation in the sport is not obligatory on any level.

LUDDEN: Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin, you're a pediatrician.

Dr. ASMA MOBIN-UDDIN (Pediatrician): Yeah.

LUDDEN: Can I ask you about the - is there a health for children who do observe Ramadan? And again, they can't eat, you know, after dawn and then until, from before dawn until after dusk. It is quite a long day there.

Dr. MOBIN-UDDIN: Well, it depends on the season also. I mean, certainly the winter fasts are, you know, can be 12 hours…

LUDDEN: Sure.

Dr. MOBIN-UDDIN: …6 AM to 6 PM and then these days in the summer, there are long fasts when you're breaking your fast about 8:20 in the evening. But Jennifer, we need to remember that in a 24-hour day all of us go probably about 12 hours a day without eating or drinking anything. We put our kids to bed at maybe 8 PM, we get them up eight in the morning, and they don't get up in the middle of the night to drink water and to raid the fridge, at least not that we're aware of probably, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MOBIN-UDDIN: So, we - all of us, you know, we can do that in our body and this is just a way of switching that cycle. As a pediatrician and just with my background, I have young kids and some of them have, they have not reached puberty, but they have fasted. And I think if parents are aware and responsible as Mr. Jameel had mentioned that you're keeping an eye on your kids, you're aware.

And if they do have a problem where they feel faint or they really feel as if they're not about to continue, they're not suppose to continue. They're supposed to break their fast and take care of their body in that respect. So just to say that, you know, I don't think our kids can handle it, I think we should give our kids a little credit and work with them, make sure that we as parents keep an eye on their general health and wellbeing. And let them experience if they, you know, if they want to participate and they want to fast, I think just medically there's not any reason that they could. You know, we go 12 hours a day without drinking and eating anyway, so we just need to be smart about how we're keeping an eye on things and let them experience it if they want to.

LUDDEN: Asra Nomani, if someone doesn't want their children fasting, though, are there other things that they could do to observe Ramadan?

Ms. NOMANI: You can donate your clothes to charity. Traditionally, if you miss a fast in the Muslim faith you can give food to the poor. But, you know, I think again that comparing the 12 hour, 15 hour day of the nighttime with a day of a child who has to do math problems, who is in recess, who is having to be sharp, you know, is not equivalent. And that's where we I think fail our community in terms of actually putting out there into the world Muslim citizens who contribute to the world in the best of ways.

What we have today are children who have to take the PSAT exam when they're in juniors, you know. As far as I know we didn't have a PSAT in 7th century Islam. This wasn't, you know, an issue of that day and we have to take into account as we hand out these edicts and romanticize rituals the actual consequence.

LUDDEN: Jameel, can I just ask as a father, what is your favorite part of Ramadan?

Mr. JOHNSON: My favorite part of Ramadan is really the discipline that it brings to me, that it reminds me to put aside some of the things, television. It just creates kind of a focus for me on my faith. As a matter of fact, the Quran says that fasting has been prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those before you to teach you what you call Taqua, piety, self-restraint. And Ramadan is a great discipline for that.

And you just see so many people who many times have not been to the maschid(ph) lately, have focused so much on the world that they've put their faith aside, kind of return to the faith during the month of Ramadan. And when I see my children partaking in it and doing it for themselves, I'm very, very proud of them.

LUDDEN: Jameel Johnson is a father of three and joined us from his office in Washington. Asra Nomani is the mother of one child and a regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor. She joined us here in our Washington studio. And Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin is the mother of three and author of the award-winning book, "A Party in Ramadan." She joined us from NPR member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Thank you all so much for being here.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you.

Dr. MOBIN-UDDIN: Thank you, Jennifer.

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