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Ramadan 2021 is expected to be from the evening of April 12 to the evening of May 12 (with slight variations across different places). For a lot of us, this falls smack in the middle of finals. We may see this as a good sign that our finals exams are concurring with such a blessed month, a month of abundant reward and favor from God. Muslims always have an optimistic mindset because they always see the good in everything. We are hopeful and trustful of Allah that our final exams will be good because we have the opportunity to pray for the best of the best for our lives.

Ramadan is also a month of fasting, which means many of us college students will be refraining from food and water while preparing for, or taking, our final exams.

I have a pretty good idea of what it is like taking finals during Ramadan. My finals schedule in middle school and high school have been in May and June, the very months Ramadan happened to fall on. So, since the seventh grade I have celebrated Ramadan during finals. I have a lot of stories and I’ve also picked up several good tips and reminders on how to take finals while fasting.

Do your Best

God does not burden a soul beyond it can beat.” 

I come back to this verse time and time again to remind myself in moments of difficulty and hardship, I have the ability to overcome. I don’t need to overexert and potentially hurt myself in trying to accomplish something. And I have really found that even when Ramadan fell on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, the fast was like a breeze — it was because I came with the intention of fasting for God alone and trying my best. There are of course instances for Muslims when going on with the fast is just too difficult and might even harm the person, so of course they should break the fast. God is merciful and only expects that we do our best.

My Story: Being Proud

It has always been a little strange for non-Muslims in my school to hear how I was fasting all day in the heat and during finals. I remember specifically sitting in a lounge area in the hallway working on homework while a few feet away a girl was eating lunch and telling her friends, “Yes, they can’t drink water or eat food all day. They even have to fast during the APs the next two weeks.”

She was a really smart girl in my class, and was actually very kind, but at that moment I really hated her pitiful tone. As Muslims, we are proud of the choices we make in our acts of worship. Fasting is something special between the individual and God.

So in my high school a few weeks before Ramadan, I hosted an event about informing students and teachers about the holy month. I went through the many aspects and traditions during the month, and each year I have done it, I have always received a very positive response. 

My Story: Being Conflicted

In the ninth grade, Ramadan once again coincided with final exams. But this year, it was my very first final exams in high school. 

So, maybe people at school might not always get why I am fasting, but surely my family will always support me, right?

Not exactly.

Getting good grades has always been of the utmost importance to my parents. They come from a culture where beginning at five years old, parents hire private tutors for their children so that they can test into the best private primary schools. To my parents, I had to study hard, and that meant removing anything that would interfere with my studying and test taking. This, unfortunately, meant that I was encouraged to eat and not fast during final exams.

I was not the only one hearing this from my parents — many of the boys and girls in my school also had parents telling them not to fast during final exams. Our local Masjid came out with a reminder that fasting is obligatory for all people of age who are physically and mentally able. This didn’t change my parents’ mind.

I personally knew I was perfectly fine to fast and take exams — I knew my body and I knew when something was too much. If I truly felt like I couldn’t finish fasting that day, I would break it. But I had to try. I couldn’t just give up from the beginning; I had to try my best

And yet, my parents strongly discouraged me from it.

So, I was very conflicted and very confused. Should I not fast this year so I can focus on my final exams? Will I really do poorly on my exams if I fast? I felt like I had to choose between my obligation to fast in Ramadan and my obligation to obey my parents who were discouraging me from fasting. I couldn’t choose one obligation and not the other, they were both important obligations. Not only was I alone, but I also had to study, so I couldn’t attend the Masjid regularly like before, where I had some wonderful teachers who could advise me. 

And so one day, while watching review videos on YouTube I came across a video called Yahya Ibrahim’s Exam Experience. Shaykh Yahya Ibrahim tells his story of deciding how he could make it to his final exam while also attending Friday prayer at the Masjid, an obligation for men. It is important to note that one should never take religious counseling or any kind of advice from merely a YouTube video. Shaykh Yahya Ibrahim’s story, however, was very inspirational and I could see the wisdom in it.

The story was that Shaykh Ibrahim Yahya had a psychology final exam scheduled from 1 pm to 2 pm on Friday. That was the same time he was supposed to attend Friday prayers, and not only that, he would be leading the entire congregation — so the entire Masjid was depending on him. He tried to ask the professor for a makeup date, but the professor would not budge. The test was from 1 pm to 2pm, no sooner no later. Shaykh Yahya then tried to ask the Masjid board if they could find someone to replace him, and that was also a no. So, Shaykh Yahya decides he will pray Jummah’ and then rush back to take the psychology exam. After praying Jummah, he comes back to take the test with only ten minutes left. The entire exam was multiple choice. He reads the first question, and realizes he knows the answer — it’s C! He reads the second question, C again. Third, C. Fourth, C. “2 minutes!” the instructor yells out. There is no way that Shaykh Yahya will have time to read the rest of the questions — so without putting any thought, he goes down the entire scantron and fills in C — the entire test! As I am watching the story, I really feel bad for him right now. There is no way that he passed the test — the exam couldn’t have been all Cs, he should’ve randomly bubbled the answer.

A week after the exam, Shaykh Yahya gets his result back: one hundred percent. His instructor explains, since this is a psychology class, part of the examination was to see whether students would doubt themselves during the test. Obviously, no one who had the full hour for the exam would answer all Cs — they had time to think and vary their answers. But Shaykh Yahya didn’t have time to think about that!

He says the very words I am thinking, “Truly, that is from God.”

Shaykh Yahya didn’t compromise his obligation to pray Jummah, and his promise to lead it, just to take a test. He managed to do both because he had an incredible thought in his heart: trust in God.

I decided from then on I too won’t stop fasting during final exams. Now, I realize my AP World History exam won’t have all the same answers, but I saw how you could never go wrong with trusting in God.

Communication

During that Ramadan that fell during my 9th grade finals time, my family and I had very open conversations. I remember my mom sitting in my room and telling me her decision for me not to fast while I was at school was not just about studying for final exams. “It’s hard for me to see you, my child, not eating all day. You know, I’m your mom.”

That moment with my mom really changed me as a fifteen year old freshman in high school. It made me understand my mom’s love for us on a deeper level. I understood my parents just wanted to make sure I was safe and healthy. I assured them I could fast while I was going to school because I would be careful not to over do anything.

Communicate your needs clearly, whether that be to your friends and family. Talk to each other about your plans in Ramadan and how you will balance everything.

Recognition from Barnard

Leslie Grinage, dean of Barnard College, sent an email to the school about supporting Muslims students fasting during finals.

It states: 

• Students observing the fast may ask for a 15- minute break during class to pray and eat a snack if their class coincides with sunset in their time zone.

• Due to fasting practices, Muslim students may opt to request religious accommodations for final exams, an hour before dawn, two hours before sunset, and an hour after sunset based on the time zone they are in.  

• If faculty need assistance or have questions about any students in their classes, they may reach out to the student’s Class Dean.

• Students who are still on campus can take campus meals to-go to break their fast, and can be encouraged to take additional food at that time for the pre-dawn meal. Dawn in New York on April 12 is 5:03 AM and will be a minute or two earlier every day thereafter.

Barnard’s email that they sent to students includes the ability to ask for accommodations — take advantage of this! Don’t be afraid to ask to take an exam at a different time. It never hurts to ask.

“Read”

Even though I decided I would study for finals and fast, I still felt like my studying schedule was taking over the plans I had during Ramadan. I felt like I wasn’t engaging in worship as much because I was studying so much every night.

I was reminded that anything can be an act of worship, even studying for a history exam. In fact, isn’t there a great wisdom in the fact that the first word from the Quran that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was “read”? 

Reading signifies studying and seeking knowledge. Essentially, Muslims are encouraged to study things like math and  science — it is in our tradition! So don’t be discouraged if you feel like you shouldn’t study during Ramadan. All of this contains a great wisdom.

Sabrina Salam

Columbia Barnard '24

Sabrina Salam is a first year at Barnard College hoping to pursue law, writing, and psychology. When she isn't exploring topics on social justice to write about, Sabrina loves to watch documentaries and hike with her family.
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