Ramadan is the holiest month in Islam, marked at the start of the new moon during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The Prophet Mohammed reportedly said, “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.” Many Muslims also believe that this is when God revealed the first verses of the Quran.
The dates for Ramadan change each year on the Gregorian calendar, but for 2022, it was April 1 to May 1 at sunset. During this entire month, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset each day. This is meant to strengthen one’s relationship with God through spiritual discipline and minimized distractions. Often, Muslim families will eat together before their evening prayer. The breaking of the fast is a light meal called an iftar. Later in the evening, families and friends may share larger meals. Many Muslims also engage in more readings of the Quran and extra prayer each day called Taraweeh; it is a celebration of their faith, meant to be spent with loved ones. Muslims also celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a celebration at the end of Ramadan, which is on May 2 this year.
This Ramadan, college students are experiencing new challenges in some cases: This year was the first Ramadan that many Muslim students celebrated while going to classes and taking exams since the pandemic and lockdown. While fasting and going against your natural circadian rhythm schedules is already a challenge to non-practicing Muslims, many universities’ scheduled events and campus cultures make observing Ramadan even more difficult, according to Muslim students. In their own words, this is how Muslim college students believe their schools could better support them while they are engaging in their religious beliefs and customs.
Some students have difficulty balancing normal schedules with their faith.
During Ramadan, students fast but still attend classes, work, and any extracurricular activities like they normally would. Such a packed schedule with lack of food and water can interfere with students’ energy levels, according to some Muslim students, which is sometimes difficult for their peers and professors to understand.
“End of semester burnout coincided with the beginning of Ramadan this year, so it has been a struggle keeping up with both my academic and religious goals,” Sameen, 20, tells Her Campus. “The change in my sleep schedule has really impacted the way I have been performing at school, and I wish they were a little more understanding about how some students may not be able to put in the same level of effort during this month.”
Commuter students deal with even more fatigue, according to Ishrat, 20, who tells Her Campus, “Knowing that I have to commute both to campus and back home without coffee for the day is brutal.” Working students face similar challenges, like Sara, 23, who is doing a full-time MBA while working two jobs: “Some of the biggest struggles I have experienced with Ramadan being in the school year is that I am not able to work or perform properly and my sleep schedule is more disturbed than ever. Waking up for 9 a.m. classes becomes significantly harder when you already have to wake up a few hours prior for Suhoor,” Sara tells Her Campus, referring to the meal before sunrise.
Many Muslim students like Imaan, 20, desire more clarity among non-Muslims about the meaning of Ramadan. “I wish people around us would educate themselves on what we do and why we fast,” Imaan tells Her Campus. “I’ve met several people around me who have rushed to tell me how ‘bad they felt for me,’ have constantly gotten the infamous ‘not even water?’ question, and offered food before my fast was opened. I don’t ask for sympathy, rather I ask for respect from those around me.”
music festivals during Ramadan exclude these students from campus life.
The disruption to students’ daily routines is not the only challenge, however. Many events hosted by university organizations, clubs, and the institution themselves occur during the month of fasting and faith. Large music festivals are common during the spring semester right before finals, like Columbia University’s “Bacchanal,” where artists like Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Rina Sawayama, Flo Milli, and more have performed. Temple University’s “OWLCHELLA” featured headliner Jack Harlow this year, and ASU had Chase Atlantic as their 2022 headliner for “Devilpalooza.” What most of these events have in common is that they occur during Ramadan.
As a result, most Muslim students will not take part, which can affect their social lives. As other students flock to the venues to sing and dance, many Muslim students prioritize their religious customs first. Some have called for change and better planning from their institutions. In one op-ed published in the Columbia Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, two Muslim students argued that they felt strongly dismissed by the Bacchanal planning committee and that had the event taken place one day earlier (March 31 rather than April 1), Muslim Columbia students would have been able to partake in the event.
Poor planning by school organizations can inhibit Muslim students’ activities during Ramadan.
Beyond music festivals, some Muslim students may also be forced to miss club meetings, tutoring sessions, and other regularly scheduled activites because of Ramadan. “Most events in my school are held after 6, including organizations I am a part of. This time of year, the sun sets around 7:30, which has led me to leave meetings early to open my fast and pray,” Imaan says, adding that one club’s attempts to change the meeting time to accommodate Muslim students led to chaos and eventually, meetings without Muslim students present.
Students’ academics may also be affected, according to Maliha, 21, who tells Her Campus, “I’m not able to attend the pharmacy tutoring we have on campus (which I attend pretty often for my classes) because the tutors start and end pretty close to iftar time.”
Even if the timing does work out, Muslim students may have to opt out of attending certain campus events because they serve food. “Events like festivals, and any type of places that have food, I have not attended because we are fasting,” Javariya, 20, tells Her Campus. Ishrat also notes that food at school events made it difficult to attend them as a Muslim student.
Some onlookers might ask, if Ramadan poses such a large hassle to your school schedules, why continue to participate in it? Well, Muslims are not supposed to avoid work or school or any other normal, day-to-day duties just because they are fasting.
Furthermore, the practice of fasting (along with the other four pillars or duties of Islam) is meant to remind those who partake of their continual dependence on God for sustenance, as well as what it is like to be hungry and thirsty, to encourage empathy and compassion for those who face these trials and tribulations every day. Moreover, the act of fasting can help Muslims focus more on their relationship with God. In general, Ramadan is meant to encourage charitable giving.
Some have proposed ways universities can accommodate Muslim students during Ramadan.
Knowing these obstacles impede many students from participating in these meaningful traditions, what can university administrators, faculty, club officers, and other students do to support Muslim students during Ramadan? Many of the students who spoke to Her Campus pointed to a need for more formal and concrete recognition of Ramadan and Eid, as well as prayer areas for Muslim students on campus.
“Universities should recognize our holiday Eid al-Fitr, since in the upcoming years it might conflict with our classes, especially universities with a significant number of Muslim students. This semester I was worried that I will have a class on the day of Eid, and I definitely do not want to sacrifice my religious commitments or my academic responsibilities,” Sondos, 20, tells Her Campus. Ishrat agrees, saying, “I think that what most Muslim students want is a day off for the religious holiday that follows Eid. Even a day out of the week that Eid happens would be appreciated.”
During Eid, Imaan says, “My family has always gone out to pray Eid prayer early in the morning and spend the rest of the day spending time with loved ones, giving gifts, and having a good time!” Similarly, Maliha’s community celebrates with prayer and food. “We greet each other with formal embraces and offer each other greetings of ‘Eid Mubarak,’ which is a way of saying ‘Have a blessed Eid,’” she says. “We dress up, visit other families’ homes, and talk and eat together.”
Having to miss these celebrations to attend classes or take exams can distance students from their communities and traditions. On the other hand, skipping academic commitments for religious purposes could affect students’ grades, meaning they may have to sacrifice something either way — unless universities are willing to give them time off during Eid.
Maliha and Sameen also both emphasize the need for proper prayer space on campus, as well as access to food outside regular dining hall hours for Muslim students breaking their fast. Maliha adds that the facilities on her campus “don’t have a proper ‘wudu’ room, where we would comfortably clean ourselves before prayer (this is not just for Ramadan, but for all the time).”
Imaan says that generally, many Muslim students are looking to feel seen and heard. “There are only around 3.5 million Muslims in America,” Imaan says. “As we stand as a minority here, it’s hard for some students to find someone they feel comfortable discussing their religion with, especially during this holy month. Universities can always offer an event for people to come and educate themselves on Ramadan, along with welcoming Muslims to open their fast with the people there. Professors, friends, and peers just reaching out and asking a general question like, ‘How is your fast going?’ could mean so much to students, from feeling unseen to feeling welcomed and safe around these people.”
Some students wish others knew more about why they enjoy Ramadan.
In that same vein, many Muslim students wish their peers had more clarity on why they observe Ramadan — and specifically point to it as a joyous occasion, despite stereotypes around fasting.
“Ramadan is more than just not eating or drinking. It’s about creating healthy habits, breaking unhealthy ones we have input into our lives without noticing, and learning about ourselves along the way,” Imaan says. “Yet, most people think that all we do is fast.”
Similarly, Sondos says, “I think it is important for others to know that we do not hate what we are doing. We actually enjoy fasting and we always look forward to Ramadan every year. This month is like a recharge to our strength and our faith till the next Ramadan. It brings us closer to Allah because of the increased forms of worship like prayer, fasting, and charity.”
For Sameen and Sara, Ramadan is especially important for family relationships. “During Ramadan, I spend a lot more time eating with my family because our eating schedules are finally synced,” Sameen says. “It’s the little things that make Ramadan more peaceful and happy. The Muslim community comes together during this time and encourages each other to become better Muslims in this month, which I think is a beautiful thing.”
Sara says, “Ramadan is the most joyful time of the year, no matter how much we complain about being hungry. There is a lot of bonding and unity that happens during this month.”
As more academic institutions make claims about the welcome diversity on their campus, they should know that actions speak louder than words. Actually taking into consideration how they can make slight changes to accommodate minority populations will help validate these communities and help students feel more seen and comfortable throughout the year. Students of all backgrounds shouldn’t have to give up school-wide events or religious practices. Part of school and campus culture are the mindsets of students, too. If non-Muslims acknowledged the importance of Ramadan beyond surface-level observations such as fasting, Muslim students could feel more comfortable praying and practicing their religion in university spaces.