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Muslim voices at Carolina

As part of our ongoing series of “Voices at Carolina,” we are focusing on Muslim voices this month to mark both Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Ramadan, an Islamic holiday marked by fasting, praise, prayer and devotion to Islam, began at sundown on April 12 this year and ends at sundown on May 12. Eid al-Fitr, which begins the next day, marks the end of Ramadan and is observed with communal prayers, a khutuba (sermon) and Zakat al-Fitr (donations of food). Muslim students, faculty and staff at UNC continue to study and work while observing the daily fast during the month of Ramadan.

Although Muslims have been immigrating to the U.S. since the 1800s, their numbers increased after 1969, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished previous immigration quotas from North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere. Today, there are 3.45 million Muslims living in the U.S. (1% of the population). However, rising anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes have impacted their lives. At UNC, there are several support groups for Muslim students, including the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the Islamic Medical Association (IMA) in the School of Medicine and the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. UNC also offers a minor in Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies. However, many Muslim students and staff feel a lack of visibility and understanding of their religion. Several Muslim Tar Heels have generously shared their personal perspectives here:

Dalal Azzam, Class of 2022
B.S. Biochemistry and B.S. Neuroscience with a minor in Arabic

In the Muslim community, Ramadan signifies 30 days of sacrifice, faith, and patience. While from the outside it may look like a tiring and difficult time, Muslims all around the world celebrate the arrival of this month and arrange countless preparations. Being able to break my fast (Iftaar) with friends and family, convening nightly as a community at mosques, and seeing the community come together to strengthen its faith are things that I look forward to every Ramadan.

It is with no doubt that this year’s Ramadan looks different than in previous years. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of the community feel of Ramadan has been lost. To keep ourselves and others safe, many gatherings like Iftaars and group prayers have been canceled or strictly limited. Not being able to participate in these community events significantly adds to the feelings of isolation that the pandemic has brought to our lives.

As an organization, UNC’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) has been working to make this year’s Ramadan feel a little more “normal.” While we cannot recreate the sense of community felt from sitting side-by-side our fellow Muslim students, we use Zoom and other online platforms to host socials, community discussions, and panels to continue fostering a sense of togetherness during these times of separation as well as a “grab-and-go” socially distanced Iftaar to ensure our members are able to feel connected.

While this Ramadan will be unlike others before it, I am excited for the chance to find new ways to engage with my community. It is during these times that I see just how united our community truly is as we demonstrate strength and resilience to persevere through difficult times. I am eager to see what this Ramadan will be like, and I am excited for all the growth that this month will bring.

Racial percentages of Muslim AmericansMariam Azzam
Assistant Director of Marketing, Carolina Housing

When asked to share my personal experience around celebrating the holy month of Ramadan and Eid, I welcomed the opportunity to both “educate and build bridges.” My intention was to write a positive, informative, and celebratory piece, but I found it difficult to reflect on my experiences without needing to share the scarring truth that has culminated in the peace that I find myself in today.

Ramadan is the holiest month for over 1.9 billion Muslims around the world. It is a time of self-reflection, deepening your connection to God, a time of giving, and lots of prayers. Simply put, we fast from sunrise to sunset daily to empathize with those who are not as blessed as us. When the simplest things, like a sip of water or a bite of food, are taken away, it is unimaginable that you do not become more thankful for all the blessings that you have. It is also unimaginable that you do not become a kinder and more generous person because you have, albeit in a controlled environment, experienced it.  It is a beautiful and joyous time of year for us.  It is traditional to break our fast communally with family and friends, or at the mosque with others.

I’ve been fasting Ramadan since I was 11 years old. Growing up, there was not much, truthfully if any, the support provided by schools especially for students who were observing Ramadan.  I distinctly remember my parents personally asking my middle school principal for any sort of accommodations and being refused because it would be against school policy. I recall being in middle school and being forced to sit in the cafeteria while others ate because students were not allowed to be anywhere else during lunchtime. Or the time I asked my gym teacher in 7th grade to allow me to sit out from running the mile in PE class because it was very hot outside and I was fasting. Her reply, verbatim: “I don’t care!  You either get a zero and be sent to the principal’s office or you run.” So, I ran. It was a 17-minute mile. But I ran. My parent’s words echoed in my mind, “They just don’t understand us.” It is a horrendous feeling not having support for your religious needs within the community you live in.  It creates a tremendous disconnect from those around you and births an isolation that is branded in your memory.

Fast forward to today. AP Exams for my high schooler have been moved until a few weeks after Ramadan to better suit fasting students.  I get an email about Religious Accommodation Requests for Students, Faculty and Staff here at UNC and feel a sense of comfort knowing that my two Tar Heels are cared for.  I see a post on Twitter from the University Office for Diversity & Inclusion about what to expect your Muslim students to feel while fasting and how you can help support them and provide adequate accommodations. Various UNC departments posting “Happy Ramadan” messages on their social media accounts. And, my Carolina Housing family offering help, understanding and the freedom to do “what you need to do for yourself and your family” at this time. Although I am not surprised as UNC has been a truly welcoming community, I still find myself thinking of my younger self with sympathy. “It’s been a long time coming,” I tell my children, with whom I’ve shared my stories. They get frustrated hearing the unfairness of how it was because, thankfully, they are living in a time and community that supports true inclusivity.

I see it as a heartwarming evolution, decades in the making. The crucial part of inclusivity is that part where one feels seen, heard and represented. One is not the prerequisite of the other. We must have all three in order to achieve true inclusivity.

As we look forward to celebrating Eid Al Fitr (a three-day holiday directly after Ramadan), I am hopeful when I reflect on how far we’ve come. When Eid is now an official school holiday, so we don’t have to worry about our children not getting Excused Absences. I am hopeful when colleagues and neighbors and random shoppers at my grocery store wish me a Happy Ramadan or Happy Eid. I am hopeful for my fellow Muslims, especially our younger generations, that after a month’s worth of self-reflection, prayers, patience, giving and sacrifice, this deepening of faith is reflected in kindness and a hunger for always wanting to help others. I am hopeful that there will always be chances, like this one, to help educate others to yield a better sense of understanding about our community.

Husna Kider, Class of 2024

Ramadan this year looks so different than it usually does. While my family and I typically break our fasts at home or at the masjid, this Ramadan (and the last) we’ve had iftar solely at home. We also pray tarawih (night prayers) at the masjid, but this year we’ve had to do it at home as well.

While the feeling of community isn’t physically evident this year, virtual events and MSA meetings keep the Ramadan spirit alive. I enjoy seeing my brothers and sisters every week and I’ve realized that no matter how far apart we are in distance, we are together in spirit, and that is what Ramadan is about.

Data on Muslim AmericansSahar Sayess, Class of 2024
B.A. in Global Studies and B.A. in Psychology

In my experience, UNC has an incredibly well-connected Muslim community due to the strong presence of the Muslim Student Association (MSA). Although there is a strong sense of community, it can certainly be difficult as a minority faith group to feel seen and heard on such a large campus.

Being a Muslim student at UNC can be difficult at times especially when Ramadan takes place during the semester, specifically during finals as it does this year. This year Eid El Fitr (the holiday that ends Ramadan) will occur during the last week of finals. The exact day of Eid El Fitr is unknown until the moon is sighted just before, making it a bit challenging to attempt to plan Eid celebrations around finals. Despite these challenges, I plan on engaging in extra worship this month with my friends in the Chapel Hill area while preparing for and taking final exams.

Muslim Americans are equally as likely to identify with their faith as they do with the U.S.Shahnaz Khawaja, MA, LCMHC, NCC, LCAS
Assistant Director of Resilience and Recovery Strategies, Student Wellness

I was deeply moved when Adrianne Gibilisco asked me to share my thoughts for this feature. This is because Adrianne is one of possibly four or five colleagues on this campus who truly ‘see’ my whole self. I want you as a reader to pause for a moment and let that number sink in. On a campus as large as Carolina, I feel seen by only a handful of people, whom I can count on the fingers of one hand.

It is easy to see my skin color and you may notice my gender. You may muddle through asking me where I am from as you are unsure of how to ‘box’ me — I find a lot of people want to ‘box’ me. And by that I do not mean punch me (although that may apply in some cases!); I mean put me in a box or category. After they have gathered this minimal information about me, folks tend to feel satisfied that they now ‘know and understand’ me and where I am coming from. At times they even tell me, “I see where you are coming from!” Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

What is easily missed about me is the simple fact that I am a Muslim woman. I am often told I “don’t look Muslim!” I wonder, “Did you think Muslims were baked in a cookie-cutter factory? We look like what we were born to look like!” I am also told that I am the first “Muslim” folks have known up close, and then I am further asked to explain the actions of a criminal or terrorist because the crime is conflated with my religion. Crime and terrorism do not have a religion, folks. Terrorist and criminal agendas can manipulate any religion to fit their narrative. And yet, I am held to account for that crime in a very casual conversation. Imagine the burden that is placed on me in that interaction. Islam is a very misunderstood and villainized religion in the world at large but especially in the West. I am not here to change your mind about Islam. I am here to say what Islam means to me.

You may wonder what my Muslim identity means to me? In a word…everything!  I am not just a Muslim by birth, but also by choice. If you missed my Muslim identity, you have truly missed the essence and core truth of who I am. My identity as a Muslim is what makes me stay late to assist a student in distress, do my work with care and fairness, pay close attention to fiduciary stewardship of duties assigned to me, speak truthfully, smile even when I don’t want to, bite down on my tongue when I want to say something unkind, uphold good and speak up against injustice, participate in interest-free banking, give to charity, help an elderly person, maintain kindness towards my neighbors, and so much more. In short, if you see anything worth any good in me, it is there because my deen (faith) instructs me to do so. When I fall short, it is because I was unable to overpower my baser instincts and have neglected to do my duty as instructed by my deen.

Every good action daily, for me, is motivated because my deen has a recommendation for the correct behavior in such a situation. My Muslim identity means I must filter every thought, action, choice, and word I speak, and only if it aligns with goodness, fairness and equity, can I proceed. As you can imagine, I fall short often because my baser instincts demand satisfaction, but I recover because I am inspired to do better because of my deen. A lot of the wellness and resilience work I do on campus is evidence-based and I smile when I see practices –now backed by science to promote health, wellness, and equity — are in fact the same practices recommended in Islam.

I hope my narrative has offered additional insight into who I am and how other Muslims like myself are often unfairly ‘boxed’ because we are a largely ‘unseen’ community on campus and sidelined to exist in our ‘designated’ space of the MSA (Muslim Student Association). We are all around you and we are largely unseen, and we feel the exclusion. Yes, our designated space is important but so is the recognition and awareness that we exist.

If the 1715 victims of anti-religious hate crimes in the U.S. 13.2% were of anti-Muslim biasSidra Qayyum, Class of 2023
B.S. Biology with a minor in Chemistry

This will be my first Ramadan spent at UNC. Last year, I didn’t get the chance to experience Ramadan here due to COVID which definitely makes this year harder. Having Ramadan during exams and finals is not ideal. It’s hard to balance the time to really focus on Ramadan and spirituality while also studying and completing assignments. Not to mention how hard it is to do school work on an empty stomach and lack of sleep.

I’ve come to realize that having COVID last year during Ramadan was really a blessing in disguise. I got to be home for the entirety of the month and spend it with my family. I had more time to work on myself and focus on my faith.

Being in Chapel Hill this year has already been challenging. I miss sitting down, eating with my family and praying together. I do live very close to campus, so I am lucky to be able to go home on the weekends and spend time there. I know there’s a lot of people who live farther away and are unable to do that and that’s even more of a challenge in itself. I am also very fortunate to live with Muslim roommates and friends that I met through MSA so we can experience this month together and be there for one another. It makes it a lot easier when I’m not with my family.

This year, a lot more masjids are opening up at limited capacity for taraweeh, the nightly prayer we do in Ramadan. Last year, none of the masjids close to me were open so my family had to pray together at home. I am thankful that this year there are more opportunities to pray with fellow Muslims during this month.

Though this month will bring new challenges I haven’t experienced, this is always a time of year I get excited about and miss when it’s gone. We’re already a couple of days in and I want to make sure I make the most out of it before it’s over. I look forward to the self-growth I intend to accomplish this month and getting closer to my faith, which I hope all Muslims get the opportunity to do as well.

Zakia Ishaque, Class of 2022
B.S. Neuroscience and B.A. Exercise and Sports Science with a minor in Chemistry

On April 12th, at sunset, Muslims all around the world welcomed the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is a holy month centered around peace, self-reflection, worship and restraint from worldly desires. During this month, Muslims fast from the break of dawn to sunset and they spend their evenings with family and friends. Together, they feast, pray and work to strengthen their faith.

Ramadan definitely looks different from what it looked like in the past years. Normally, Muslims would gather at sunset to break their fasts together. At night, masjids (Islamic places of worship) would be packed, filled with people who gather to pray taraweeh, a night prayer. Now, most Muslims will break their fasts and complete their prayers at home.

Spending Ramadan at home can get very lonely, but many Muslim youths were able to adapt quickly to spending Ramadan in a pandemic. One way was through organizing virtual “prayer sessions” every night. Last Ramadan, I attended virtual events hosted by an organization called Deenville, which was founded to provide virtual space for Muslim youth to spiritually reflect together. Every night, our peers would lead a session reflecting on passages from the Qur’an, which is our Holy Text. Additionally, the UNC MSA (Muslim Students Association) hosted virtual events throughout Ramadan to make the month feel less lonely for Muslim students. Since these events were always virtual, it was a great opportunity for the MSA to collaborate with other MSA’s across the country. I was able to interact with people from all over the country since the only requirement to attend these events was to have a Zoom account.

I definitely miss the in-person activities that came with Ramadan but I am grateful for all the opportunities that came out of having to celebrate this month in the midst of a pandemic.

Muslims fast on RamadanZehra Hassan, Class of 2023
B.A. Business Administration with a minor in Public Policy

Ramadan is the time of year that many Muslims look forward to, and for me, it’s no different. From waking up at 4 a.m. to pray to fill myself up with delicious fried foods at sunset time to

break my fast, not a single moment goes by in Ramadan that isn’t filled with meaning and significance.

This year, it’s a little different. If you would have asked me a couple of years ago what the most important parts of Ramadan were, I undoubtedly would have said the communal aspect of it all. The mosques that are usually empty throughout the year being flooded with familiar faces all congregating to celebrate the special month, eating foods from all cuisines, hearing the Quran recited by a different speaker every night. There’s a special spark, magic almost, that I can never find outside of Ramadan. However, this year millions of Muslims have had to make do with the unprecedented circumstances that limit that magical experience of Ramadan many of us are so accustomed to.

This year, it’ll be characterized by studying for and taking finals coming up for UNC students in a few weeks. It’s texting friends “Ramadan Mubarak!” a congratulatory remark to welcome the month rather than being able to hug them. But it’s an experience that I never would have had if we had not been forced in these circumstances. It’s intimate conversations with close family, it’s connecting with God in a different way when prayers are done in solitary without the distractions of others around. It’s taught me that although having a strong community makes Ramadan so memorable, that the spiritual component is developed in a way it never has before when I do this month alone.

Although I still look forward to rejoining my fellow Muslims on campus next year to experience Ramadan at Carolina, I cannot help but feel grateful for the valuable lessons I know I’ll learn this month.

 

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