The way Imran Jasim spent his 11th birthday may put some to shame.
The young man chose to forgo a traditional party and celebration, instead spending a quiet afternoon June 7 at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center in Urbana packaging school supplies and candy for children in need at Courage Connection, a Champaign shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Jasim, a Champaign native, wasn't alone in this endeavor. His campmates at the mosque's Quran camp for Ramadan also took part.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, commemorates the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad. During this month, Muslims not only must fast — abstain from food and water between sunrise to sunset — but also refrain from committing bad deeds. Practicing charity and modesty are also encouraged. This year, locally, Ramadan began the evening of May 15 and ends tonight.
"One main thing about Ramadan is to give for the sake of God," said 13-year-old Huzefa Gota. "So we came up with a few ideas of how we should give back."
Gota, the oldest participant at the Quran camp, suggested donating to Courage Connection. He called the organization and found they needed help with school supplies for kids staying at the shelter.
In order to raise funds for their plan, Jasim said, some of his campmates went door-to-door mowing lawns while others enlisted the help of parents and relatives.
In the end, their charity drive raised $585. They used the money to buy backpacks, stationery and candy for eight kids staying at the shelter.
"You really have to bring out the want to give and to help in kids," said Fatima Ahmed, a volunteer teacher at the Quran camp and Jasim's mother.
She said that in her experience, children have trouble empathizing with those different from them. The University of Illinois graduate said that she often centers her lessons on helping children sympathize with those less privileged.
The notion that Muslims fast during Ramadan to feel like the poor, she said, is a huge misconception that is, unfortunately, ingrained in the kids and a lot of others. Ahmed said feeling like the poor is just a benefit of the fast, not the goal — a misinterpretation she is working to resolve.
The goal is much greater than anything like that, according to Usama Zahid, director of outreach activities at Central Illinois Mosque. He believes that people often focus on the exterior impression of Ramadan but overlook the ultimate goal of those activities.
"There's multiple levels to the message from Ramadan. You're connecting with God and realizing your potential through that," Zahid said. "It's about realizing your potential physically, interpersonally and on an internal, spiritual level with God. It's about building self-restraint and will as well."
Zahid, a postdoctoral candidate in bioengineering at the UI, added that Ramadan is also a means for "taqwa" — an Arabic word that means gaining consciousness, mindfulness and awareness of God.
Every sunset in the month of Ramadan, mosques host an Iftar dinner and invite their congregation to break the fast with dates and water, just as Mohammed did. Following that, they engage in a communal prayer led by the imam, the leader of the mosque. After these rituals are over, everyone is free to eat.
Urbana's mosque serves as the community center for Muslims in Champaign-Urbana, and about 200 devotees turn up for Iftar every night.
The end of Ramadan is celebrated with Eid al-Fitr — the festival of breaking the fast. It is a joyous occasion, Zahid said, where people often try to look their best and attend a comprehensive sermon led by the imam. Some even give out gifts to friends, family and to charity.
For Eid this year, the mosque is organizing two gatherings today: one at 7:30 a.m. at the mosque, and the other at 9:30 a.m. at Wyndham Garden Inn, Urbana.