The drinking fountain in the hallway. The coffeepot in the office. The candy dish on the end table. So often, we instinctively indulge ourselves regardless of actual thirst or hunger. It's the thing to do, especially in a Minnesota January, when food and drink are used to counter the chill we incur from the frigid climate. For a handful of students and faculty at Carleton College, however, the pressure to resist such urges recently increased. As Muslims, they fasted during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar that commemorates the revelation of the Koran to Mohammed.
During Ramadan, practicing Muslims rise before the sun and begin fasting no later than 6 a.m. No food or drink, including water, is consumed from sunrise until sunset. At that time, the fast is broken, often with traditional foods, such as dates or fruit salad. The fasting continues each day for 29 or 30 days, depending on the cycle of the moon.
"The challenge was training my willpower while being surrounded by a culture that is not observing the fast with me," said Associate Professor of French Cherif Keita. "This increases the meaning of Ramadan for me, since I believe the more I struggle for the sake of God, the more valuable my worship is." Keita explained that fasting purifies the body by shedding the excesses the body doesn't need and cleansing the soul through patience and perseverance. "The basis of all faiths is being able to endure, to be patient, to persevere for later gratification," he said. "Fasting during Ramadan is one way to strive toward that goal--to avoid the instant gratification that permeates today's society."
Faisal Mohyuddin, a sophomore from Rolling Meadows, Ill., was thirsty during the day and he missed the social aspect of going to lunch with his friends, "but I added an hour to my day, so it wasn't so bad." First-year student Sofia Qureshi of St. Paul, Minn., found the fast most difficult during her iceskating class, when the physical activity "tended to wear me down."
For Instructor in History Yasmin Saikia, fasting was both a physical and a spiritual journey. "It was a personal time to come to grips with my own limitations, to get out from the busyness of books and research. I was able to acquire more empathy for others and not be so demanding." The hardest part of the day for Saikia was rising at 5 a.m. "By the time I wind down, it's usually two or three in the morning. So to get out of bed so early was hard, but only served to make me more self-aware and disciplined."
Mohyuddin stressed that Ramadan isn't just about not eating during the day. He strived to be more centered in his faith and challenged himself to observe certain rituals. "During Ramadan I also wanted to read the Koran more and spend more time in prayer, but it was more difficult to be self-motivated and remove myself from the everyday routine of classes to do that. In that way, it would have been easier if the Muslim community were larger and the environment were more conducive to spirituality."
There were opportunities for support among Carleton's small community of Muslims, however. Mohyuddin and Qureshi often broke the fast at Keita's home or in Saikia's kitchen. These gatherings, according to Keita, represented a hadith, or a particular statement about Islam. One hadith states that whoever feeds a fasting person also receives the blessing that the fasting person receives. "Eating together at the end of the day is a way to share the rewards and benefits that come from the ritual of fasting," Keita said. The group also gathered together for Friday prayer.
Saikia believes religion is personal and doesn't pronounce her faith publicly. As a new member of Carleton's faculty, she was pleased by the positive energy here that encouraged understanding of the fast during Ramadan. Saikia was able to leave meetings early in order to be home in time to break the fast and arranged her teaching schedule so she could attend a mosque in Minneapolis on Fridays.
The student body was eager to understand as well. Late-night impromptu discussions about religion have been a part of daily life in Qureshi's dorm. These debates have often been heated, due to the variety of religions represented by students at Carleton. "My next-door neighbor is a strict Catholic and his roommate is an atheist, so it's been interesting to hear the different opinions about faith." Qureshi also was surprised by how often Islam has come up in class, whether it's a history, English or philosophy class. "Sometimes I will speak up to correct a misconception about the Islamic faith," she said.
One misconception may be that Ramadan is a restrictive time of deprivation. Both Keita and Mohyuddin spoke of how the holy month in some ways resembles the Christmas season. "Most non-Muslims are surprised by this," Moyhuddin said. "But Ramadan is a time of becoming more spiritual, of gathering together with family and friends. Yes, there is fasting, but that only strengthens your appreciation for what you have."
Ramadan ended on Monday with Eid, a festival day of feasting and gift-giving. Keita's childhood memories of Eid in his native Mali include vivid images of going door to door and extending verbal good wishes to his neighbors.
Moyhuddin spoke of the large family gatherings during Eid at home, when everyone prayed together and ate together. "It's my favorite time of year. When Ramadan ends, I always am saddened to think I have to wait 11 more months for it to come again."