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Credit: Isabel Liang

During the month-long Islamic holiday of Ramadan, Muslim students at Penn have been fasting from sunrise to sunset each day, and observing various religious practices while attempting to balancing the schoolwork demanded by finals.

Muslims are expected to strengthen their relationship with God and their faith through frequent readings of the Quran, extra prayers, and giving to charity throughout Ramadan, which began on April 12 and will end on May 12. Students on campus observing Ramadan generally wake up before sunrise, eat a small meal before dawn, and pray the first prayer of the day, Fajr, right as the sun rises. They fast until the sun begins to set at the time of the fourth prayer, Maghrib, and eat a larger meal. Late at night, after the fifth prayer of the day, Isha, students may also pray an additional set of prayers called Taraweeh. 

Last year, students said they missed the sense of community they typically experience during Ramadan, when families and mosques often host community dinners for Iftar, or “breaking of the fast," for example. Now, some students who observe Ramadan are rediscovering elements of community as COVID-19 distancing restrictions continue to lift.

College sophomore Fatma Omar said that being in quarantine has allowed her to understand the more spiritual meaning of the tradition.

"[Ramadan] is about reconnecting, renewing, reflecting, and contemplating on my spiritual state and my relationship with God, and finding ways to incorporate that into my daily routine," Omar said.

Similarly, College sophomore Ryan Afreen also reflected on how practicing Ramadan provides the opportunity to have a new beginning and gain forgiveness from God.

"You get to be born again. We forgive others and we forget. All the trauma that happened to us, we try to move past that,” Afreen said.

Despite being away from their families and under COVID-19 restrictions, students have been finding community during Ramadan on campus.

For College junior Kamal Suleiman, Ramadan is about connecting with friends and family, as well as shifting his priorities towards spiritual connection — while attempting to maintain his other responsibilities as best as he can. 

"In a typical year, I would go to the mosque pretty much every day, but then this year, though the mosque is open, it's not really COVID-19 safe, so I've had to not go, and as a result, I was kind of bouncing around between different friends doing [prayers] in small groups," Suleiman said. 

The Muslim Students' Association has given out food to students and organized virtual events during Ramadan, and has led socially distanced congregational jummah prayers every Friday this past month. Afreen said MSA's events were kind and collaborative in their efforts to bring the University community together to pray and talk more about Islam.

Muslim students have also found ways to connect within their residential life. College sophomore Johaer Jilani said the Muslim Life Residential Program has hosted grab-and-go events in his on-campus residence, Harnwell College house, which he attends with other Muslim students in the building. 

Students observing Ramadan have found it difficult, however, to balance their religious responsibilities with schoolwork. In addition to the regular duties of fasting and praying, students living on campus described how they have to finish their course loads, study for final exams, partake in extracurriculars, play sports, and fulfill a variety of other tasks.

"I think it's really hard, especially because it is a full month, and it really does consume our whole days. Fasting the entire day gets really tiring, especially while we are trying to act like it is a normal school month," College first year Summer Maher said.

For many first years and sophomores, this year is their first Ramadan away from home — leading them to learn how to attend to all their fasting needs like preparing meals, managing a new sleep schedule, and maintaining their spirituality. 

“My experience [this year] is very different because it's the first time where I was away from my family during Ramadan. I have to prepare my own Iftar, which is the food that we eat when we break our fast, and that takes some time,” Afreen said.

Some students said they had to ask professors for alternate exam times in order to balance the end of the semester with duties for practicing Ramadan, and found that some professors were more accommodating than others.

Maher said that after asking for accommodations, some of her professors offered to allow her to take her exam earlier in the day — which conflicts with Maher's routine of going to sleep at 5 a.m., after a meal that is taken before sunrise. 

Afreen said that having more Muslim student representatives is one way to increase the awareness around Ramadan on campus.

"A lot of Muslims got elected this election cycle, so I think that'll be great for future classes, so that we don't have this kind of situation where you have to reach out to your professors, and [they] don't really know anything about Ramadan and haven't thought about Ramadan when scheduling the exams," Afreen said.

Omar, however, reported a positive experience with her professors, explaining that this semester was the first time she had a professor who responded to her request to shift a midterm time with enthusiasm, even wishing her "Ramadan Mubarak and may Allah bless you and your family.” 

"I've never seen that statement in an email, and I almost broke down; it reminded me of home for sure," Omar said. "Having teachers and adults understand [Ramadan] and be also participating in it is really beautiful.