Muslims worldwide begin fasting Wednesday for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan -- a time for purification of the soul through worship and spirituality, sacrifice and charity.
During this monthlong observance, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sensual pleasures from dawn until dusk while engaging in prayer and reflection. Three suburban Muslims share their spiritual journeys and approaches to fasting, which is an integral part of the Islamic faith.
A spiritual cleansing
Omar Hedroug, 29, of Westmont, started fasting at 11 because that's what everyone around him did.
Fasting becomes obligatory at puberty, but Hedroug said he didn't fully appreciate or realize its spiritual benefits under he got older.
"I didn't realize that hunger is actually benefiting me," said Hedroug, youth director at the Islamic Center of Naperville. "Not eating and not drinking are maybe the easier aspects of it. You are kind of starving your body to be able to feed your soul. Fasting in Islam is one of the greatest ways for us to develop our relationship with Allah (God) ... our Creator."
Hedroug tries to instill this appreciation in youths along with helping them prepare for the physical and mental aspects of fasting.
Fasting is not unique to Muslims and was prescribed to previous nations of believers as mentioned in the Quran, Islam's holy book. Its purpose is to achieve "taqwa" or God-consciousness and protecting oneself, Hedroug said.
"A lot of times people say 'it's an act of worship so we can empathize with the poor,' but the actual purpose of it is to establish this consciousness of Allah," Hedroug said. "A person while fasting is conscious of the fact that they can no longer do things that were halal (lawful/permissible) for them from dawn until sunset for the simple reason that Allah told them not to."
Fasting during Ramadan is spiritual training for the rest of the year. It provides a spiritual cleansing and a boost, Hedroug said.
"If within the month I can abstain from what is necessary for me to survive, I can no doubt do that with the things that are forbidden for me throughout the year," he said. "This is in essence what taqwa is ... doing what Allah requires from you and staying away from what he has forbidden."
A 'wholesome' approach
For Yvonne Maffei, a halal food blogger from Crystal Lake, what to eat when breaking the fast is a spiritual exercise.
"It's a good lesson in being a conscious, mindful eater," Maffei said. "You can't have junk food ... foods that make you crash."
The daughter of a Sicilian father and Puerto Rican mother, Maffei grew up Catholic and is the only Muslim in her family. She began fasting even before embracing Islam 17 years ago.
"The first time I felt the hunger pain, I understood the hikmah (wisdom)," she said. "You learn empathy. You learn your own strength. You learn about what you are able to withstand. It takes focus off the food onto some critical thinking about your place in the world and how for other people this is perhaps a routine struggle."
Initially, Maffei focused on the mechanics of fasting and making comfort foods from various traditions and nutrient-dense meals for fast breaking. She now also emphasizes creating meals using foods and ingredients from the prophetic tradition.
"That is deeply rooted in the halal and tayyib (pure/ethical/wholesome)," she said. "I simplified my meals ... not having so much food, just having what's essential, healthy and wholesome. Eat better. Live healthier. Your body is an amanah (trust) on you and I take that seriously."
A total 'reset'
Danielle Barrett El Moghazy, 36, a hair stylist from Itasca, is fasting for the first time since embracing Islam five years ago.
"I tried a day here and there," said El Moghazy, adding fasting was a challenge with pregnancies and breast-feeding her three children.
This year, she felt a compulsion from within after hearing of its spiritual and health benefits from her physician husband, Mostafa.
"I honestly am very scared," she said of the 17-hour fast. "I just want to try during this time to block out outside influences. I don't know even what to expect yet."
El Moghazy hopes fasting will help cleanse her body and soul and help her become more centered in her faith.
"I'm just trying to be better all around," she said. "I don't pray regularly and I want to try to do that, as well. It's almost like a reset for me with patience for my kids, eating better for myself ... it's not just one thing. I'm almost hoping for an overall life cleanse ... a total reset of everything."