When Muzaffar Shaikh celebrated his first Ramadan in America two decades ago, it was a test of faith.
Ramadan is the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn until sundown every day. Shaikh, who had arrived from Pakistan, studied most of the day, then worked a nine-hour shift managing a Manhattan candy store.
Despite his hunger pangs, he said, he never ate the Milky Ways or Almond Joy bars an arm's length away.
"It was a very tough time, recalled Shaikh, 42, who works as a technology consultant in Windsor Mill. "Just not touching it was an act of worship for me."
Shaikh and thousands of Muslims in the Baltimore area will begin observing Ramadan today or tomorrow. It depends on when the moon marking the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar is visible.
It was at this time 1,400 years ago that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, who fasted twice a week. For a month, Muslims will observe a fast, refraining from eating, drinking or sex during daylight - a period of just less than 11 hours each day this week.
Muhammad "always used to fast on Mondays and Thursdays," said Syed Habeeb Ashruf, president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore. "The person who emulates him is the most pious person in the eyes of God."
Muslims believe that fasting during Ramadan enables them to heighten their spirituality and practice restraint.
Fasting in the United States' food-obsessed culture, though, is not easy - especially for the young, who usually begin fasting at puberty. After Friday prayers at the Al-Rahmah Mosque in Woodlawn last week, Shaikh and several others shared chicken biryani (a South Asian rice dish) and their thoughts on how to raise observant children.
The key, Fareed Ahmed said, is to set a good example and slowly train children as they grow. Ahmed, 43, encourages the elder of his four children - Fahad, 10, and Zenab, 8 - to fast as long they can each day.
"If they are hungry, they can do the lunch," said Ahmed, who lives in Woodlawn and operates a shuttle service.
"If you do not train your children to fast and then you ask them to do so after puberty, it's tough," said Ashruf, an emergency room doctor.
Mumeet Habeeb grew up in East Baltimore and began fasting at 13. He was the last of five siblings in an extended family where everyone observed the tradition. Fasting, he said, just seemed natural.
"That's definitely a big boost: Everyone's doing it," said Habeeb, 20, who recently graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and plans to apply to medical school.
Mohamed Daib, 43, who runs a pizza parlor in Randallstown, tries to make Ramadan particularly festive. He said he spends 50 percent more on groceries than usual during the month.
After darkness falls, his family consumes dates, soup and a glass of milk. An hour later, they devour a big meal.
Like many other Muslims, Daib buys clothes for his daughter, Sarah, during Ramadan. He sees it as a sort of reward for her attempts at fasting. Still, he says, it's not easy for her.
"Because she's just 7 years old and she sees the kids in school eating, she can't comprehend the fast," said Daib, who lives in Edgewood.
The Al-Rahmah Mosque, where they gathered, is the largest in the Baltimore area. It occupies the top floor of a red-brick building near Security Square Mall that also houses an Islamic school for 290 children. The congregation comprises about 350 families, mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
On Friday afternoon, hundreds attend prayers - women in one room, men in another. In stockings or bare feet, the men sit cross-legged on strips of green carpet on a basketball court used as a prayer hall.
An imam - on Friday there was a guest speaker from Sierra Leone - delivers a sermon from a lectern just behind a Plexiglas backboard. During Ramadan, officials at the mosque use the basketball court as a dining room, where 200 to 300 people end their fasts together each evening.
The mosque provides the food, which helps cement a sense of community and provides sustenance to some of the poorer members, Ashruf said. On Nov. 22, the mosque will hold an interfaith open house to celebrate the end of Ramadan.