Muslim students observe Ramadan

For the last month, Emaan Ammar ’09 has woken up at around 5 a.m. to the sound of her alarm clock. In the half-hour before dawn, she eats a breakfast of oatmeal or cereal and drinks some water — a meal called Suhoor that will be her last until sunset. As the sun comes up, she recites the first of five prayers she will perform throughout the day. Usually she stays awake for a little while afterward, watching as the sun rises over Yale or catching up on homework. Then she goes back to bed.

“When I get up, it’s very quiet and very still,” she said. “It’s just a mome­nt for me to reflect outside of any superficial considerations.”

Students feast at the annual Ramadan banquet, a tasty reward for a month of daily prayer and fasting in obedience to the dictates of Islam.
Adam Trettel
Students feast at the annual Ramadan banquet, a tasty reward for a month of daily prayer and fasting in obedience to the dictates of Islam.

Ammar, like many of the Muslim students at Yale, has been fasting from dawn to sunset since Sept. 24 in observation of the month of Ramadan, which ends on Tuesday. Muslims observing Ramadan — one of the five pillars, or core obligations, of Islam — not only abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, but also try to pray more and generally avoid worldly pleasures. Some Muslim students at Yale say they fast rarely or not at all, but many choose to follow a strict fast during daylight for the entire month. The Chaplain’s Office estimates that approximately 150 undergraduates identify themselves as Muslims.

To most Yale students, Ramadan is most visible at the annual Ramadan Banquet, a formal dinner in Commons organized by the Muslim Students’ Association and open to the whole Yale community. This year the banquet took place in Commons Dining Hall on Oct. 20 and was attended by about 400 students and Yale faculty, including Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and masters and deans of residential colleges. Guests at the banquet ate Middle Eastern foods, including chicken tandoori and keema mattar — a dish of ground beef and peas — and listened to members of the Muslim community describe what Ramadan means to them at Yale.

While many banquet attendants were Muslim, about two-thirds were non-Muslim students were there to learn more about Ramadan or support Muslim friends, Muslim Students’ Association President Altaf Saadi ’08 said. Saadi said Ramadan emphasizes the importance of community and the banquet provides a good opportunity for Muslim students to share their food and traditions with the wider population of Yale.

“It was really exciting just to see everyone there and for us to be able to share the experience of Ramadan,” Saadi said. “It very much goes hand in hand with Ramadan and what it means.”

Shamshad Sheikh, a Muslim and an associate chaplain at Battell Chapel, called the month of Ramadan a beautiful time of year for Muslims because of the feeling of community it creates. Whether or not they practice the daily principles of Islam, Sheikh said, most Muslims participate in the fast, which increases patience and creates a feeling of strength and solidarity among Ramadan observers.

Students observing Ramadan said that for the most part, the fast does not have a significant impact on their normal routine. Nisreen Hasib ’10 said her body adjusts quickly to her new eating schedule, which — because she often skips breakfast anyway and only squeezes in a quick lunch between classes — is not very different from the old one.

“Once you get past the first two or so days, your body gets used to doing without as much food and as much water, and you get used to eating at night,” she said. “Basically I’m just moving dinner to a later time.”

Hasib said she chooses to break the daily fast in the dining hall with her non-Muslim friends, but many Yalies observing Ramadan attend a nightly Iftar, or breaking-of-the-fast meal, organized by the MSA and catered by Yale Dining Services. The Iftar was held in the Rose Alumni Center for the first ten days of Ramadan, and has since moved to Battell Chapel, where about 50 to 70 students, faculty and other members of the Yale community come together at sunset every day to pray, eat and socialize.

Most of the people who attend are Muslim, but the MSA also invites students from a different religious or cultural group to break the fast every night, and many students invite other non-Muslim friends to come along, enjoy the food and learn about Ramadan.

Usama Qadri ’10 said he attends the Iftar at Battell almost every night. He said that while not eating in the dining hall with his classmates can be isolating, the communal experience of breaking the fast with fellow Muslims makes up for it.

“I haven’t eaten in the dining halls for three weeks now, and I haven’t seen a few people that I would have seen,” he said. “It’s a small sacrifice … Socially, I meet a whole group of people here that I wouldn’t meet at the dining halls, so I guess it sort of balances itself out.”

The food at the Iftar is made from recipes the MSA provides to Yale Dining Services at the beginning of Ramadan, and includes curries, samosas, and traditional desserts such as baklava. Unlike most of the meat served at Yale, meat at Iftar is halal, meaning that it has been prepared according to guidelines set forth in the Koran.

Although he is not Muslim, Terrence Ho ’09 has been observing the fast for three weeks and attends Iftar almost every night. He said he started fasting out of simple curiosity about Islam, and appreciates the ability to explore the religion by observing and participating in the Muslim community at Yale.

“I can learn about Islam without sitting in class,” he said. “I just really wanted to find out more about it.”

Farzana Faisal ’10, who is Muslim but does not always fast, said she sometimes attends the breaking of the fast simply for the sense of community even on days that she has not been fasting. Faisal said she wishes she could fast more consistently, but finds it difficult to balance the requirements of her religion with her coursework.

“It’s kind of draining. I try to do it every couple of days,” she said. “I haven’t fasted in a while just because of midterms and stuff.”

Ahmed Makani ’07, former president of the MSA, said the facilities for breaking the fast have improved enormously since he first started at Yale. When he was a freshman, Makani would get together with other Muslim students in the basement of Bingham Hall to eat their Iftar, he said, which the students paid for themselves. At the time, Yale Dining Services had no provisions for students observing Ramadan.

Now, in addition to the Iftar meal, Yale Dining Services provides Suhoor packets with Jamaican beef patties for students to microwave and eat in the morning before sunrise, as well as waffle batter and eggs for a group of Muslim students who get together every morning to cook a hot Suhoor meal.

Over the last few years, administrators said, they have increased their focus on making sure students of all religions have the resources they need. University Secretary Linda Lorimer cited the catered Iftars and the Ramadan Banquet, as well as the appointment of a Muslim chaplain at Battell, as examples of how Yale has become more sensitive to the needs of the Muslim community.

“We have wanted in recent years to do more to provide support services, particularly to Muslim students,” she said. “As part of being a community … [we] want to further the religious and spiritual formation of our students as regards to faith. To do that we need to be attentive of particular religious traditions.”

Fasting from food and drink may be the most prominent part of observing Ramadan, but students say they try throughout the month to be generally more mindful of their thoughts and actions and more attuned to their spirituality. For some, that means listening less to music or praying more, while some choose to attend an extended nightly prayer and Koran study session that the Chaplain’s Office established this year.

Hasib said she went out every weekend for the first month of school, but since Ramadan started, she has tried to spend more of her time studying the Koran and reflecting on her day rather than going to parties.

“I try to avoid doing that during Ramadan,” she said. “Every time I went to a party or something, I was like, why am I doing this?”

The last day of Ramadan this year is Oct. 24, and on Oct. 25 Muslims will celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the biggest holiday of the Muslim year. Yale is not hosting any specific Eid-related festivities, but Sheikh said some Muslim Yalies will attend a celebration at a local mosque.

Once Ramadan is over, life will return to normal for Muslims at Yale. Ammar said she is looking forward to being able to eat during the day, but she will miss the spirit of communal jihad, or internal struggle to devote oneself to God, that defines the Muslim experience of Ramadan.

“I feel kind of nostalgic at the end,” she said. “There’s something communal about all fasting together and all suffering through the same thing.”

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