Month of fasting strengthens community and builds awareness of Islam on Grounds.
Photo by Jack Mellott.
Habab Ahmed (Biology ’06) does not wait for the sun to wake her. Up and active before sunrise, Ahmed prays, eats the first of her two meals of the day, reads a few Quran scriptures and even gets some homework done, all before many of her peers have stirred from their beds.
These will be Ahmed’s pre-dawn rituals for a month, as she celebrates the Muslim holiday, Ramadan, which ends this year in early November.
“It’s a holy month — a month of reflection, of strengthening your relationship to God. It is a time for you to model yourself to be a better person and morally responsible and conscious,” Ahmed says.
Many of her Muslim peers at U.Va. have also devoutly observed Ramadan since childhood.
“The main purpose behind fasting is to gain God-consciousness,” says Asad Saqib (Engineering ’07). “You would imagine that the fasting would be difficult. I honestly find myself more focused when I’m fasting. During this month, I’m more productive and get more work done. And it’s something that I look forward to.”
Both Ahmed and Saqib come from families with long traditions of observing Ramadan. At U.Va. the traditions continue, as they join the active Muslim Students Association (MSA) and collaborate with the local mosque. Students are welcomed to the mosque every evening to join the Charlottesville Muslim community in observing iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset.
“Ramadan is such a family-oriented, community-oriented event. Going to a college setting, it’s nice to know that I don’t have to eat at a dining hall alone.” Ahmed says. “Even though we are regular college students like everyone else, there’s a sense of home; a festive atmosphere of people getting together, sharing food, sharing Ramadan together.”
There are also on-Grounds options for Muslim students seeking community. Saqib devoted his efforts last semester to setting up a meditation room. Open to all faiths, the area on the first floor of Pavilion VIII provides a space for Muslim students to pray the mandated five times a day. Saqib worked closely with Bill Ashby, associate dean of students and director of Newcomb Hall and student activities.
“For me what it represented was an excellent partnership between the Muslim students, the Student Council and the administration to work together and find what I think is a wonderful solution,” Ashby says. “Everybody I talked to agreed that we needed a space dedicated to meditation and quiet use on Grounds.”
The meditation room joins what students have dubbed the “Ramadan Meal Plan,” a special program designed in the past several years that provides Plus Dollars to students observing Ramadan in exchange for meals missed at residential dining rooms.
“Any time we encounter people with different lifestyles for any reason, if they have specific needs we do our best to try and accommodate those needs. It’s not just limited to Ramadan; we try to have an open-door policy,” states Liz Thompson, marketing program manager for U.Va. dining.
For Ashby, initiatives like the meditation room are expressions of deeper University values.
“I think it’s a prime example of self-governance and what it means to live in a self-governed community and members of that community working together,” Ashby explains. “I think it ties in well to the University’s broader effort to be a welcoming and inclusive space.”
In addition to providing a home-away-from-home for Muslim students, the MSA makes efforts to engage the rest of the University community during Ramadan.
MSA president, Umair Javed (Interdisciplinary ’07), describes an annual interfaith tradition between the MSA and Catholic Student Ministry, in which MSA members take their morning meal, or sahoor, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church. Discussion follows on topics such as how people feel about expressing their religious identity in the U.Va. community.
This year, MSA initiated a “Fast-a-thon” in which almost 400 non-Muslim U.Va. students pledged to fast one day with their Muslim peers. The event culminated with a special iftar, which provided a catered dinner and showcased a series of speakers who spoke about fasting, Ramadan and Islam in general. It was Saqib and Javed’s hope that the inaugural event, whose slogan was “Get Hungry for Change,” would provide Muslim students an opportunity to inform their peers on their faith.
“One practical benefit of fasting is that it provides an opportunity to tell other people about what your religion is really about,” Javed explains.
Ramadan, Saqib says, “stands out from the rest of the year. You feel the solidarity because you know more than 1 billion people around the world are doing exactly what you’re doing — we’re all fasting together. There is a sense of unity, of brother and sisterhood.”