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For the past four weeks, Rashid M. Yasin ’12 has folded back his covers around 4:15 a.m., rising to make a meal comprised of protein, grain and dairy, which he washes down with plenty of water to sustain him throughout the day. He then heads to a faucet to do wudu, the Islamic procedure for purifying oneself in preparation for prayer. Once he has washed his hands, face, mouth, arms and feet, Yasin performs the first of five daily prayers. He praises God and asks for forgiveness, concluding his prayer with personal supplication.
“I tend to pray for guidance and forgiveness and success in this life and the next,” Yasin says. “I pray to be able to incorporate consciousness of God and His will in all I do.”
Yasin’s morning ritual ends when he slips back under his covers again, still in the dark. After suhoor, his early meal, he will not break his fast for approximately 15 hours, going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset.
Yasin, the president of the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS), is observing Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting that ends Monday. This year he is doing so in Cambridge, but this is not the case for many Harvard students. Ramadan’s date is determined by the lunar calendar, and this year, the month does not overlap with the academic year as it has in the past. So Muslim Harvard students are showing their devotion to their faith all over the world, from Minnesota to South Korea, Senegal to Palestine.
ROUTINES AND RITUALS
Although Fatoumata B. Fall ’14 started the summer in her home nation of Senegal, she plunged into Ramadan in Seoul, South Korea, as a student in Harvard’s six-week summer school program at Ewha Womans University. She maintained her fast through studies and a two-week internship with an international development institute.
During what she considers a blessed month, Fall alters her daily schedule to practice her faith. Rising early, she prays five times throughout the day and reads the Quran after work. When dusk descends, she prepares for iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their fast. Following her fill, she prays, meets with friends, and spends time on the Internet until she sleeps “after the morning.”
“Let’s just say there is lots of sleeping in on the weekend,” quips Nima Y. Hassan ’14, a Somali-American who is observing Ramadan in Ham Lake, Minnesota.
Like Hassan, Lena K. Awwad ’13, who observed Ramadan in Palestine this summer, also awakens to eat and pray before the sun rises.
For each student, pangs of hunger are a reality throughout the day. Awwad combats her cravings by avoiding salty foods and consuming enough water to “keep awake.” She fills her day with prayers until she breaks her fast with dates and cup of milk or water, which, she explains, was “how the Prophet used to do it.”
THE MONTH AND ITS MINDFULNESS
For Hassan, Ramadan is a dedicated time for believers to focus on getting closer to God. With constant demands on her time and the overwhelming presence of the Internet, she says it can be difficult to find the space and time to thank and praise God.
“We spend a lot of our time wired and moving onto the next activity,” Hassan says. “But in Ramadan, there’s a mindfulness that’s encouraged and expected of you which you don’t really make the time for otherwise. Ramadan is not just quieting the noise, but doing so with a purpose to hear God.”
Aside from being a religious and family-oriented month, Ramadan provides space for people to learn tolerance, Awwad says. She considers prayer on an empty stomach during Ramadan to be more reflective than prayer at any other time throughout the year.
“While fasting from sun-up to sun-down, it is important not to waste the day or the opportunity to get closer to your religion and the people around you,” Awwad says. “You see life as more than just in between the meals.”
Fall says that the most meaningful aspect of Ramadan to her is constantly evolving.
“We are young people and I’m restless. When Ramadan comes around I find a more peaceful side of myself,” Fall says. “As I grow, I enjoy getting more time and opportunity to practice my religion during Ramadan. This year, for instance, I did not devote a lot of time to my religion and spirituality with all the work at Harvard.”
Yasin was raised in Scituate, Mass., 20 miles south of Boston, a community where he knows no other Muslims. Raised by a Bangladeshi father and a white mother who converted to Islam, Yasin attributes his view of his faith as diverse—“not only comprised of Arabs or South Asians”—to his mixed background. While he expected to find diversity in the Harvard Islamic Society, he was unsure of what it would entail with respect to people’s practices.
“When I got to college, I would see the different cultural traditions that Arabs have and Caucasians have. It’s partially religious, partially cultural,” Yasin says. “I was oblivious to different trends and interpretations. I had an individualized non-communal background.”
Yasin says community-building happens most during Ramadan, the biggest event on the HIS calendar. Historically, the organization has celebrated the holy month with catered iftars daily in Ticknor Lounge, drawing more than 80 graduate and undergraduate students.
With fewer people in Cambridge this summer, the group held three iftars per week, but the society continued to draw a consistent group of people Yasin calls his “brothers and sisters.”
“As part of the only Muslim family in my town growing up in suburban Massachusetts, I missed having a strong Muslim community outside of my nuclear family and so I have really embraced HIS since coming to Harvard,” says Yasin.
Awwad fondly recalls Ramadan with HIS as the “perfect introduction” to the College, especially as a first-year international student searching for a niche. As classes began, the society co-sponsored interfaith dinners and dialogues with student groups. Dinners served as a forum to meet Muslims and non-Muslims, while sharing the traditions of Ramadan.
“We even held iftars with faculty and had the chance to meet people from different religions,” Awwad says. “The events helped me connect to home. HIS was helpful in ways I didn’t imagine.”
SPACES AND SPIRITUALITY
Shortly after Hassan was born in Saudi Arabia, her family bounced to the U.S. Midwest, ultimately landing in Minnesota. She moved to Ham Lake, where she practiced Ramadan this summer. While she says there a sizable Muslim community concentrated in the Twin Cities, her town lacks a Muslim presence.
“There are Muslim communities within reach, but where we live there are few Muslims and people of color generally,” Hassan says.
Growing up in Fridley, Minn., in a community of largely first- and second-generation immigrants, Hassan recalls fasting with five other students in her grade. The school provided accommodations for observing students in a separate room.
“We didn't want to go to lunchroom and watch everyone eat. Over 30 days, we grew close,” Hassan says.
Despite appreciating the individual attention accorded to her by the school administration, Hassan says there is a disconnect between the West and Muslim societies where most people fast.
By contrast, Fall has celebrated Ramadan in a Muslim-majority country, Senegal, where she was born. Despite hot and dry temperatures that mark Ramadan, inducing thirst early in the day, she says the Muslim community is strong. Radios announce the time for iftar, community prayers are held drawing hundreds, and skits are performed in honor of Eid, the Muslim holiday following the final day of Ramadan.
“Ninety-four percent of my country is Muslim so Ramadan is not just a small group celebrating their special holiday,” Fall says. “In Cambridge I felt more in an isolated world. In Senegal, after iftar we have community prayer. Everyone, I mean everyone, goes. Houses are empty.”
Observing Ramadan in South Korea this summer proved even more isolating. Instead of praying with a large community and family, she often led prayers alone.
“I can count the Muslims who live here,” Fall says, who noted Seoul has a community of predominantly Buddhists, Christians, and Agnostics. Her friend observed her pray once, she says, and noted it was the first time she had seen a Muslim pray.
REFLECTIONS ON HUNGER
For Hassan, fasting has taken on special significance in light of the drought in the Horn of Africa, which has struck her parents' native Somalia, leaving millions with limited access to food or water.
“Somalia is a place where droughts happen with frequency, but this is unprecedented,” Hassan says. “When there’s so much hunger we need to be even more dedicated to our fast during Ramadan to be even more cognizant of what it’s like for many people around the world and act accordingly.”
But Hassan mentioned that some malnourished may continue to fast. She draws a distinction between her observance, which includes minimal physical activity during the day, and that of people who continue strenuous activity—such as working in the fields—while experiencing hunger.
“Building empathy through actual experience for people who go hungry is a beautiful thing about Ramadan,” Hassan says. “Whether you’re a king or a poor person, you observe the same. Having felt that, it’s a lot easier to imagine what it’s like for someone else to understand hunger and thirst.”
Hassan says that this empathy inspires charitable acts, making Ramadan known as a month of giving. Yasin connects empathy to spirituality, explaining that Ramadan provokes God-consciousness whereby he is reminded of his faith when he feels affected by the fast. He calls fasting “a spiritual refocusing” which facilitates remembrance of the interconnectedness of God in his life.
But hunger is only part of the experience of Ramadan. Iftar—breaking the fast—remains an important element. In Hassan’s family, it includes preparation of almost two hours, after which relatives gather for a countdown as the sun sets.
“We say ‘Three minutes! Two minutes! Time to eat!” she says.
While meals vary, one of Hassan’s favorites includes a rare Somali food, which resembles a donut, accompanied with a mango watermelon salad. The table is set with a cucumber and tomato salad, dates and milk.
“It’s pretty colorful, and I’m pretty thankful,” Hassan says.
FINISHING THE HOLIDAY
For Fall, last year’s Eid—her first in the United States—was strange. In the early morning of the day after Ramadan’s end, she gathered with other students in Roxbury to pray.
“After that I came back and went to class,” Fall says. “This was shocking, because all my life I had Eid as a holiday.”
On Eid this year, Yasin will go to prayers, accompanied with his friends from HIS, but he plans to skip out on the first day of classes. He will visit his family and celebrate in a week or two with HIS members again in the evening for an Eid banquet.
“For Eid, I’ll be home with my family,” says Fall. But after spending half the holiday in her home, she will spend the other half on a plane, coming back to Harvard.
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