As dusk descended on Murray Hall last Thursday, students gathered to celebrate Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims marked by deep spiritual reflection, prayer, community and fasting during daylight hours.
UNC Muslim Students Association (MSA) provided chicken and steak kebabs, salad, rice and pita to observing students for the first iftar of Ramadan — the fast-breaking meal.
A student called everyone to prayer, his voice prompting a sweeping silence across the crowd of roughly a hundred.
“I don’t have any words at that moment,” Manaal Iqbal, MSA’s recently elected president, said at the event. “It’s just amazing how quiet everyone gets, and we’re all just here together.”
Ramadan’s origins trace back to the seventh century when Muslims believe that the first few verses of the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which differs by year according to the lunar cycle.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, joining prayer, the profession of faith, pilgrimage to Mecca and alms — donations to the community. Although fasting is considered mandatory, there are exceptions for young children, the elderly and those who are ill, menstruating or pregnant.
The practice of fasting is seen as a means of spiritual discipline and an opportunity to connect deeper with Allah.
Abdur Rahman, a business administration graduate student, said his Ramadan practice includes developing patience and empathy and working through struggles and stress.
“I personally think it’s the best month of the year,” he said, noting that it gives him the opportunity to pause and reflect.
While Ramadan is a period of spiritual reflection and self-improvement, there is also an emphasis on community. For Sidra Qayyum, the most recent president of the MSA, Ramadan is an opportunity to develop a stronger relationship with Allah and connect with the local Muslim community.
“While it is a very individual self-growth that you're embarking on, it's also very special because you're around so many other Muslims,” she said.
In addition to providing a space for Muslim students to break the fast, socialize and celebrate, MSA's iftars are open to everyone, which Iqbal said attracts those interested in fasting or learning more about Ramadan.
“It’s a very welcoming space,” Qayyum said, adding jokingly that the free food helps.
UNC junior Noor Kazi said she is appreciative of UNC clubs like MSA hosting events for Muslim students.
Kazi said she would eat proper meals at home during Ramadan, but in college, she finds it more difficult. She also said she tries to read the Quran more during the month.
“For me, it’s sometimes hard to balance Islam with everything else, and I sometimes make school more of a priority,” Kazi said. “So I think during Ramadan, it’s really nice for me to reflect on my view of Islam and try to realign my goals with the religion.”
Sammy Chouffani, a medical student at UNC, is a member of MSA.
“The reality of humanity is that this practice of Ramadan is very common,” Chouffani said. “And 25 percent of the Earth is doing it, and so there’s nothing obscure about it. There’s nothing strange or extreme or odd about it, it is a human reality that we just don’t get exposed to much in the United States because there just isn’t a huge Muslim population here at this time.”
Rahman, who is from Pakistan, said people there often get off from work early during Ramadan — around 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. in the afternoon.
Rahman scheduled classes strictly for mornings this semester in anticipation of having less energy in the evening due to fasting. But for students unable to modify their schedules, UNC provides religious accommodations through a request form.
MSA will host events and provide food for iftars throughout Ramadan, as well as nightly Ramadan prayers, known as Tarawih.
“It's really nice having a nice Muslim community and having events like these going to prayer where you can see other Muslim students and really feeling that sense of community in a place like UNC,” Qayyum said.
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