Being your own community: Celebrating Ramadan in quarantine

Some students at home and in Lexington struggle to celebrate Islam’s holy month while social distancing

Rafay Hassan, ‘22, enjoys iftar with Assistant Professor of Arabic Antoine Edwards (not pictured) on Sunday, May 17. Photo courtesy of Hassan.

Rafay Hassan, ‘22, enjoys iftar with Assistant Professor of Arabic Antoine Edwards (not pictured) on Sunday, May 17. Photo courtesy of Hassan.

Maya Lora

At the end of a long day of fasting, those celebrating Ramadan can usually take comfort in their community. But with social distancing regulations stemming from the coronavirus, that’s no longer a possibility.

“The community aspect of it — which is more than 80 percent of what Ramadan means to most Muslims — it’s just gone. It’s not there anymore,” Midha Ahmad, ‘21, said.

Those who choose to celebrate Ramadan fast for the thirty-day holy month, breaking only between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Ahmad said the fast helps those celebrating understand the pain, hunger and thirst of those “who are less fortunate than us.”

In typical times, breaking the fast would be accompanied by group prayer and feasting, either with neighbors or in mosques. But during quarantine, students often can only celebrate with those they live with, whether that be at home or alongside their roommates in Lexington. Students also have to balance celebrating Ramadan with their spring term course load, as Ramadan will end after spring term exams.

Ahmad said that back home in Pakistan, it was obvious Ramadan was coming “at least two weeks beforehand” because stores would start stocking up in preparation of post-fast feasts. Now, Ahmad is living in the quarantined Woods Creek West and breaks the fast each night with her roommate, Diala Al Shamasneh, ‘21, who is also celebrating Ramadan. They usually cook themselves, but Al Shamasneh said they occasionally order in pizza.

“[I’ve] always done it with my family,” Ahmad said about celebrating Ramadan in college. “And without my family, it just doesn’t feel the same.”

Rafay Hassan, ‘22, said that Ramadan is just like everything else in quarantine: it’s about adjustment.

“The thing about Ramadan is that it’s a time when people, Muslims, sort of get together. There’s a lot of prayer and meditation, collective prayer and meditation, happening at mosques, at homes,” Hassan said. “If you’re alone and you’re not with family, there’s a little bit of dullness, you could say. I guess with time you sort of get used to it, just like you get used to so many other things.”

Hassan said he’s spending Ramadan practicing individual spirituality and studying the Quran.

“It’s not just me who does not have [a mosque] right now, a lot of Muslims don’t,” Hassan said. “It has made me think and reflect on how perhaps, you know, meditation or spiritual practice, more than anything, has to come from within. I should not be limited in any way by my setting.”

Both Ahmad and Hassan said that class has been helpful during Ramadan, as it distracts from the hunger and thirst. And Ahmad added Zoom classes require far less physical activity than in-person classes, which is important since those celebrating Ramadan are unable to drink water while fasting.

“Last year, I remember I was actively doing stuff on campus with walking back and forth, you know, going to class here and there. It makes you hungry and thirsty while doing [the] normal, everyday school routine,” Ahmad said. “But right now, it’s like, you just do a class online, you just… do whatever you want. In a way, it’s good because you don’t really feel the fast.”

While class can be a useful distraction, an early class would have disrupted Ahmad’s adjusted Ramadan sleeping schedule. Ahmad said that ideally, you would sleep in between the sunset meal, iftar, and the meal eaten about an hour before sunrise, Sahoor. But Ahmad said she and Al Shamasneh, like a lot of young Muslims, just stay up late to eat their second meal around 2 a.m. and then get some sleep before their afternoon classes.

Midha Ahmad, ‘21, will sometimes prepare traditional South Asian dishes for iftar, like those pictured, but she said she mostly prepares noodles or pasta. Above: pokaras, below: samosas. Photos courtesy of Ahmad.

Lemon Lemon, ‘23, typically goes to sleep even later, between 2 and 5 a.m., depending on the day. She’s celebrating Ramadan with her family in New York and has to balance her spiritual obligations with class and a job at White Castle to help support her family.

“[I’m] feeling overworked a little bit,” Lemon said. “Just due to like, being an essential worker and working at a fast food restaurant.”

At home, Lemon works between 20 and 25 hours per week. At school, she would only need to work between 12 and 15 hours at her work-study job with the Bonner Program. She said she does between three and four hours of reading the nights before her Tuesday/Thursday class. The combination of school, work and fasting makes her extremely tired.

“It’s just the college structure is throwing me off, because everything is new and harder inherently,” Lemon said. “It’s not that I can’t do it, I just need the time to do it and time is what I don’t have.”

But Lemon said struggling to find her balance has helped her realize that it’s okay to ask for help from her resources, including professors.

“I don’t have to be perfect because the situation isn’t perfect,” Lemon said.

Ahmad said that even though social distancing has made celebrating Ramadan harder, she knows she’s not in it alone.

“It’s not the same back home, either. It’s not just me who’s effected, it’s affected every Muslim or every person out there who’s observing Ramadan,” Ahmad said. “For me, I’m just taking things as they come. I feel so blessed right now because I have a place to live, I still have a way [to collect] income, I still eat every single day, I’m still living on campus and it’s a way better standard of living than most people have. So for me, I’m not complaining about how Ramadan turned out this year.”