When Jeremy Randall and Ariam Mohamed set their wedding date for May 5, they knew they would be submitting their new union to an endurance test – of faith.
"We were married a month ago and then," after a honeymoon, "going straight into Ramadan, it kinda set the table for me to look at my recent life, just being thankful and grateful," said Randall, 39, who converted to Islam earlier this spring at Mohamed's request.
It is the first Ramadan for Randall and the first that he and Mohamed, 37, are sharing as partners. During the Muslim holy month, which began May 15 and ends by June 15, they join millions of others worldwide in a period of reflection, prayer and sacrifice. It includes abstaining from food and drink from before dawn until after sundown.
WATCH: Convert to Islam experiences first Ramadan
The daily fast stretches almost 16 hours in the lengthening spring days of metropolitan Washington, D.C., where the newlyweds live. They must eat before morning prayers, which start as early as 4:08 a.m., and not until after evening prayers, which start as late as 8:35 p.m.
"A little less food, a little less drink, a little being uncomfortable is minuscule compared to the joy and beauty she's brought into our lives," Randall said of Mohamed, speaking for himself and his 10-year-old son, Jeremiah. They’d felt a huge gap since his wife Maya, the boy’s mother, died of cancer five years ago.
Time of transitions
One evening last week, the family invited two journalists into their cozy, brick house in suburban Maryland to talk about transitions and faith.
Jeremiah snuggled on the couch between his father and the woman he'd called Miss Ariam until he gave her a new name as a wedding gift: Mom.
More than midway through Ramadan, Randall – a development officer for Howard University, the historically black college in Washington that is his alma mater – was counting down the days. "We’re into the home stretch," he joked, showing the Muslim Pro app on his smartphone. It tracks progress on a calendar, lists prayer and meal times and offers Quran verses, all helpful for a fledgling in the faith.
Randall was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in a devout family living in Naperville, a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, Illinois. St. John AME was central to his spiritual and social development, through Sunday school, summer camps and youth programs.
"I met most of my African-American friends through church," he said. His decision to leave the church, but not the friendships, involved "a long process."
'I was very skeptical'
It was set in motion by Mohamed, a human resources professional. They’d met at his friend’s birthday party in late December 2013, just days before she was moving to the United Arab Emirates to work in Dubai. They went on a first date months later, when she was visiting Washington, and eventually began coordinating vacations together.
"I was very skeptical in the beginning. There was the religion, which we had extensive conversations about. Then there was the distance," Mohamed said. But, "we were both very genuinely interested in one another."
She moved back to the States last year, agreeing to marry only if Randall would share fully in her faith. Her mother and late father, originally from the East African country of Eritrea, had presented Islam as a sustaining force as they moved their family from Italy to the Middle East and finally to the United States when Mohamed was 14. She also has two brothers.
"Asking someone to convert was a huge deal for me," said Mohamed, who conceded that the idea of telling his parents was "terrifying."
But, as Randall had explained earlier, "my dad and my mother – they’re very religious but they took the news well, I think, because they love Ariam."
Nine percent of Americans who've converted to Islam do so primarily for the sake of a relationship, the Pew Research Center reported earlier this year. Three out of four American converts were raised as Christians, like Randall. Pew estimates the U.S. Muslim population at more than 3.4 million – about 1.1 percent of the country's total population.
Drawing connections and distinctions
As Randall studies his new faith, he said he appreciates similarities – Christianity and Islam, like Judaism, recognize Abraham as a prophet – and learns of differences.
He was accustomed to more free-form and spontaneous prayer rather than at prescribed times on the clock. He's also discovered more about fasting through his Ramadan experience.
"I tried before what I thought was a fast, and that was just not eating," as opposed to stopping liquids, too. "A fast definitely strengthens the mind and the spirit – I feel better for it," Randall added. A trim man already, he guessed he "might have lost 2 or 3 pounds." He's also lost sleep, which, along with "the change in my schedule, was the hard part."
Mohamed has been fasting during Ramadan "since I was about his age," she said of Jeremiah. While her family also lives in the metro D.C. area, she said she's grateful to wake, eat and pray with someone after living abroad on her own for several years.
However, she noted that in majority-Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Ramadan brings shortened work days, so people can go home and nap midday. And most adults observe the fast. "To live in a country where not a lot of people are fasting is harder," Mohamed said of being back home in the U.S.
She also admits to cravings sometimes when she catches the scent of colleagues' lunches. Some work friends have asked whether they should eat elsewhere. Laughing, she said, "I tell them, 'It's my fast, not yours.'"
At home, the same holds true for young Jeremiah. He eats meals throughout the day and might snack on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after school.
"I’m Christian,” said Jeremiah, who can go to church with his paternal grandparents, who moved to the D.C. area several years ago. But he's also respectful of his father and stepmother's religion. “I want to follow the rules they set for themselves. I don’t want to, like, get in the way – like, eat before it’s time, or say, ‘You thirsty?’ Stuff like that.”
The final hours before iftar, or dinner, are the toughest. When Randall gets home from work, he conserves his energy. He and Jeremiah go down to the basement, "where it's nice and cool," Randall said, "and we don't move. Well, I don't move. He runs circles around me."
Mohamed gets home later, "and I only have about an hour to cook," she said. She immediately begins cooking, sometimes drafting Randall to wash or chop vegetables.
On this evening, Mohamed was making baked chicken pasta with spinach, along with garlic bread and a salad. Randall stood in the kitchen doorway, his eyes on the pasta sauce simmering on the stove, his hands pressed against his audibly growling stomach. Hunger? "It's real now," he said, chuckling.
Within the hour, the three were giving thanks for their blessings and sitting down to dinner.
And, Randall said, they were looking forward to the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which ends Ramadan.
"This Ramadan is super special to me," he said. "It's a good way to start a marriage, I think."