This week, 200 to 300 students at the University will join 1.2 billion Muslims across the world to celebrate the Islamic month of Ramadan. During this ninth month of the Islamic calendar, believed to be the time the Quran began to be revealed to Muhammad, observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, abstaining from food, drink, sexual relationships, and hurtful actions.
Non-Muslim members of the larger University community are also incorporating observancein varying degreesinto their daily lives.
"I'm not a Muslim, but the idea of fasting has always been around in my family, in the Greek Orthodox Church," said Julianna Chen, a second-year in the College, who plans to fast for the entire month of Ramadan. "It seems in a lot of religions the idea of fasting is a central tenet."
Chen added that although she was initially reluctant to begin her fast, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Chen said that her lack of a background in Islamic philosophy did not detract from her ability to profit from removing some simple elements of her everyday life.
"It frees up your mind and takes you out of your comfort zone, which is important," she said. "I'm able to focus."
According to the Quran, fasting is prescribed as a means of self-purification. In the absence of satiating pleasures, it is believed that the individual can better empathize with those less fortunate than him or herself. Fasting is also a means for the individual to concentrate on his or her actions and beliefs.
"Ramadan teaches you to value food and drink for what it is and not as entertainment," said Jonathan Brown, a Ph.D. student in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department who converted to Islam. "Before so many of my leisure activities centered around eating and drinking. Eating has become a popular pastime and isn't appreciated for what it is, which is sustenance from God."
While fasting is popularly associated with Ramadan, it is an age-old practice and an exercise common among people of many faiths including Hinduism and Christianity, which is what draws some non-Muslims to also fast during this time.
Islamic tradition maintains that Muslims wake during the night for a short meal called sahur, which provides sustenance for the day. The fast is broken at sunset with the iftar meal.
Being a University student can create unique challenges for those observing Ramadan, however, especially when it comes to starting and breaking the fast.
"Students observe sahur in a variety of fashions," said Dania Dia, a fourth-year in the College and president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA). "Some have informal get-togethers in house lounges or rooms. Some eat by themselves in their room. Some don't wake up. Some are already up."
The MSA has made several arrangements for Muslim students during Ramadan, according to Dia, including daily iftar dinners and prayers. Dia said that the University has been very accommodating, adding that Muslim students on meal plans receive credit for their unused meal points.
Students seem to appreciate the actions of the MSA, explaining that attendance at the daily iftar prayers is greater than expected, which has prompted student volunteers to contribute for extra food and drink.
Professors have also been accommodating. Some have even rescheduled exams so that they do not interfere with students' religious obligations.
While the iftar dinner is only open to fasting students, the MSA plans to include the entire student body in the festivities of Ramadan with Islamic Awareness Week. Beginning November 3, the MSA will hold an event entitled "Respecting Diversity," which will challenge traditional stereotypes of Muslims and try to represent the diversity of the Muslim community at the University.
Events include an evening study break accompanied by Islamic rap, a screening of Malcom X in coordination with the Organization of Black Students, and a discussion led by Ingrid Mattson, Ph. D. '99.
Ramadan will conclude with Eid-al-Fitr, an Islamic holiday celebrating the end of fasting.