On October 27, Muslims around the world started observing Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, during which Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and personal desires throughout the daylight hours. University Muslim Student Associations across the United States host all kinds of religious, cultural and social activities during Ramadan. These activities are meant to strengthen the ties among the Muslim student community and some of them are open to non-Muslims as well.
Muslim students at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia get together for the fast-breaking meal of the day, the Iftar. Junior Farah Abdi, public relation officer of the Muslim Student Association, says the group organizes Ramadan's Iftar five evenings a week, Monday through Friday.
"Iftar is actually very popular," she said. "We have 150-200 a day, because there are a lot of students on campus around that time and they look forward to breaking their fasting together."
Ramadan is the busiest time of the year for MSA members, according to sophomore Mohamed Rihaan. "We have to prepare the drinks, the food, and we need to set up the place before the Iftar," he explained. "It's very time consuming, but we have many volunteers. We have our e-mail list where people can sign in as volunteers."
Like their fellow Muslims, Mr. Rihaan says the George Mason students break their fasting after sunset, and a couple of hours later, they do their prayers, Taraweeh.
GMU Muslim Student Association member Faris Ahmed says they also organize weekly gatherings during Ramadan where scholars from around the country lecture and discuss various religious topics. Mr. Ahmed says such activities bring the Muslim community on campus even closer.
"George Mason University is the second most diverse university in the U.S.," he said, "so people are very understanding. The Muslim population here is quite significant. So there's no feeling of being outsiders. It would be wrong to call us a minority here."
The Muslim Student Association at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, also organizes Ramadan Iftar parties, prayers and town meeting discussions. MSA member Abdulbasier Aziz says they started what they call "The Ramadan at MIT Program" right after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The events bring Muslim and non-Muslim students and faculty together.
"We have three nights during Ramadan when we invite other students and faculty members," he explained. "One night is a student night. And usually there are questions about Ramadan: why do we fast, and even questions like why this person wears a hijab [head cover]. Another night is the faculty and administration night. Here we also talk about Ramadan and why we fast, but the faculty themselves are very interested in the political situations that are affecting Muslims. So, that night tends to be more toward the political end in terms of the topics discussed."
Muslim students at the University of Texas in Austin began a "Fast-a-thon" last year to encourage non-Muslims to fast for one day during Ramadan… for charity. MSA's public relations officer Raafia Lari says the program is part of a nationwide campaign to address the issue of hunger in the United States. She says it also provides the opportunity for students from different religious backgrounds to come together for a good cause.
'Fast-a-Thon' is an attempt to show people what Ramadan is and at the same time help people gain an understanding of hunger and feel empathy for those who go hungry on a daily basis," Ms. Lari explained. "or every non-Muslim who can fast on November 13, we are having business sponsors donate a dollar in their name to the University of Texas. We are raising fundsfor charity. Last year we had 600 participants who fasted one day. This year we hope to have a thousand participants fast from the sunrise to sunset and then at the end of the day we have a huge fast breaking meal together, and all the food is donated by local restaurants."
Ms. Lari saidhe sees a greater understanding today of Islam and Muslim rituals such as fasting, than ten years ago when she was growing up in a small suburban town in Massachusetts.
"I was the only non-Protestant, non-white person in my class," she recalled. "Even at the school it was only my sister and I. So it was very difficult. I felt very alienated and different, but at the same time that was a great opportunity to teach people what Islam is, what Ramadan is and what it means to us."
Unlike Ms. Lari and other young Muslim Americans, who have always practiced the fast of Ramadan as a minority, Amjad Afanah has a different experience. He used to observe Ramadan in a society where Muslims are the majority. He came from Jordan a year and half ago to study engineering and computer science at MIT. Mr. Afanah says he misses some aspects of fasting Ramadan at home.
"I miss my mother's cooking the most. I also miss the TV programs that are based on religious and cultural traditions," he said. "But when I came here it's all different and it's not like I'm not feeling Ramadan spirit, I feel it in a different way. I am getting closer to my Muslim community here. It's just another experience."
Whether in Boston or Amman, Mr. Afanah says the fast of Ramadan has always been a spiritual experience. For him, fasting is not just abstaining from food and drink, it's an opportunity to examine his life and appreciate what he usually takes for granted. It's that message that the Muslim Student Associations try to bring to campuses across the United States.