For Muslim Students, an Early Ramadan Means Fasting During Exams

Manha Bulbul has been fasting for the month of Ramadan since she was 8. She looks forward to it every year.

“Ramadan is just a happy time for my family as a whole,” Manha, now 14, said. “I just feel better, and that I can do better, and to become more holy in a sense, like this is my redemption time.”

Ramadan, a month of service, increased worship and discipline, follows the lunar calendar and begins about 10 days earlier every year. It is believed that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan. This year, for the majority of Muslims across the United States, Ramadan began on the evening of May 5 and will end on June 4, also known as Eid al-Fitr. For the next 20 years, Muslims will be fasting from dawn to dusk for about a month during the academic school year because of the way the holiday falls.

Students in New York City’s public schools are off on June 4 to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and for another Muslim holiday in August, Eid al-Adha. New York was the first major metropolis to give students a day off school for both Muslim holidays in 2015.

Muslims observing Ramadan, like Manha, a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science, are likely to take part in late-night prayers and wake up early for predawn meals. In the spirit of service and giving back, Manha also volunteers at her school’s community service events and increases her involvement at her school’s Key Club.

She said her school accommodates Muslim students by providing them with food-free spaces during lunch hours and a prayer room.

Eman Alomari, left, 20, is a child education major at Brooklyn College. “I have classes back to back with only five minute breaks in between, so I don’t even go to the prayer space. I pray in the cafeteria or an empty classroom near my next class.”
 Gabriella N. Báez/NYT Institute

LaGuardia Community College has students from 150 countries who speak 96 different languages, according to its website. Khadiga Nahshal, 26, a student there, leaves her Bronx home two hours early to make it to her classes on time. She said her commute is when she is the most productive during Ramadan.

“On the train is when I can recite about 30 minutes of Quran and get some schoolwork done,” she said.

She planned her schedule to work with her fasting and enrolled in three late-afternoon courses. In her deaf studies class, Ms. Nahshal asked her instructor, John Collins, to be excused during class time to break her fast and was granted however long she needed. She said she also asked her other professors for short breaks during her other classes to pray.

Other college campuses are also introducing programs and events to accommodate Muslims.

Hira Faisal, 27, graduated from New York University’s College of Dentistry on May 20, during Ramadan. She said the month before graduation was difficult for her, juggling early-morning classes and classes that ended after the evening call to prayer, maghrib athan.

“Every day you’re dealing with patients,” Ms. Faisal said. ”You’re interacting with them, and sometimes I found it hard to just focus on what I was doing.”

But her college, along with two other N.Y.U. campuses, provided Muslim students with iftars (after-dark meals) and a halal dining hall with extended hours during Ramadan.

“I thought that was really great because we would be working in clinic or studying til 8 o’clock, and we could go down to the iftar room and grab food,” she said. “We could stay there and eat if we wanted or we could just take the food with us.”

The Islamic Center at N.Y.U. advocated for these accommodations. The organization also provided students and staff with an infographic on what Ramadan looks like for Muslim students, and shared it with other schools across the country. Amira Shouman, the assistant director of the center, said it was critical for these conversations to be happening.

“College can be stressful, and Ramadan is a month that many people look forward to,” Ms. Shouman said. “We want to make sure that students have the resources to be able to do both with less of a burden.”

The center also provides free iftars, religious lectures and congregational prayers during Ramadan. “Many institutions have made accommodations for students, providing prayer space, extended dining hall hours, sharing information about counseling on campus and how to go about asking for academic exceptions if needed,” Ms. Shouman said.

Columbia University allowed students to request arrangements during final exams occurring late at night, provided them with a pre dawn meal, called suhoor, and a late-night area for additional prayers, or taraweeh, on campus. Princeton University and University of California, Berkeley also provided their Muslim students with to-go meals and dining programs.

These programs and accommodations allowed Muslim students to tend to their religious obligations, but the programs also provided a space for them to socialize and unwind.

Ms. Faisal said she enjoyed the iftars at N.Y.U. “It built a sense of community in the College of Dentistry because everyone would get together, pray maghrib, get food and talk about their day,” she said.

Women pray at the Beit El-Maqdis Islamic Center of Bay Ridge mosque in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Gabriella N. Báez/NYT Institute

Reyad Ghali, 48, the imam of Beit Al-Maqdis Islamic Center of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said students still come to the mosque for taraweeh prayers on school nights. The mosque is more popular during the weekends, but he said he has hope for future generations of Muslim students who will celebrate Ramadan only during the school year.

“There’s an Islamic principle that says that the greater the hardship, the greater the reward will be with Allah,” he said in Arabic. “Muslims should be encouraged by Allah’s reward for remaining steadfast in practice despite hardships that may arise while fasting.”