Washington - In Arabic, a man recites a declaration of faith, practically singing as he praises God - Allah, as he is known in Arabic. The man is signalling to the hundred members at Masjid Muhammad that it is time for two very important events: The evening prayer and the breaking of the day's fast.
Most of the men, women and children at Masjid Muhammad, a mosque, have not eaten or drunk in nearly 15 hours. They have been fasting since dawn, praying and reading the Qur'an in snatches while at work or school. They are hungry, but it is Ramadaan - a holy month of fasting and prayer for Muslims around the world - and they say their hunger is not important.
"Fasting," explains Imam Talib Shareef, "makes you conscious of human life, aware of universal human needs. Regardless of your race, ethnicity or nationality, you have to eat, drink and sleep," important daily tasks that are carefully controlled during Ramadan. Waking up early to eat before dawn and fasting during the day forces you to think about the essentials in life, he says.
Shareef heads Masjid Muhammad, built in 1960 and one of the oldest mosques in Washington. He wears a black kufi, a short, brimless hat, and leads daily prayer services for the mosque's 1 500 members, most of whom are black.
Ramadaan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is considered to be the month when the Qur'an was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w), the central figure of Islam. The calendar uses slightly fewer days than the Western calendar of January through December, so Ramadaan occurs at a different time each year.
Fasting isn't the only thing encouraged during Ramadaan.
"You try to be the best person you can be," says Asiya Khokhar, one of about a dozen kids at the prayer service. "You try and be nice and polite to other people and try not to fight and yell."
Muslims are expected to pray five times a day and read all of the Qur'an during Ramadaan. Asiya, 12, says she feels "more spiritual, more focused and more happy" during the month.
Fasting is hard, many kids say, but you get used to it. Khaled Mohamed, 15, has been fasting since he was about 3. (Most kids start at 12 or 13.) "In winter, it's very easy to fast," he says, "because all you're thinking about is trying to keep warm during the day."
One helpful trick Khaled has learned: Telling his friends he's fasting for the month so that they don't eat around him. "It's easier that way."