At sundown on April 1, millions of Muslims around the globe will begin observing Ramadan, a holy month of fasting, prayers, introspection and familial connection. There are over two billion Muslims in the world — and several hundred of them are right here at Carolina — the very students, faculty and staff that we work with, learn from and teach. Yet many of their colleagues, classmates and professors are unaware of the beauty and formality of this spiritual period…nor of how best to accommodate those observing it.
According to biochemistry major Dalal Azzam (’22), she and other members of the Muslim Student Association share concerns that, with Ramadan falling entirely during the school year (particularly during finals), they are not receiving the sort of support and understanding that they require to observe their faith while also successfully completing their studies.
During this very solemn observance — and throughout the year — they are entirely dependent on the University to provide adequate space for prayers. Yet devoted space is limited to just two hours on Fridays at the Student Union. During the semester, halal [food permissible according to Islamic law. For meat, pork and forbidden cuts – those from hindquarters – are not allowed] food is difficult to find. During Ramadan, when they are fasting throughout the day, they eat before dawn and break their fast at sundown, when most meals are unavailable to them on campus. Taking classes and exams at a time when they are fasting is especially difficult and when professors are either unaware of the inequity of this (or worse, uncaring), the students suffer further alienation and trauma.
Without an affiliated mosque or Muslim organization at UNC, MSA are their own advocates. MSA serves both the UNC Muslim student community as well as the Muslim community outside of UNC and is led by just 10 devoted undergraduate students. Many of them generously shared their thoughts about the celebration of Ramadan on campus. Their explanations and perspectives are both educational and inspirational…and will allow you to be a better ally for them:
What do you feel are some of the most common misconceptions about Ramadan?
A common misconception about Ramadan is that Muslims do not eat at all for the entire month, but this is not true because fasting Muslims can eat during the time from sunset to dawn. Another myth is that all Muslims fast in Ramadan. [However,] Muslims who are pregnant, menstruating, sick, traveling, or are too young do not have to fast. A third misconception is that Muslims only abstain from food and drink during Ramadan, but this is not the full truth because we also refrain from bad speech or behaviors, smoking, and sexual intercourse between a husband and wife (sexual intercourse is not allowed otherwise in Islam). Muslims are supposed to increase in daily worship to reap the benefits of the blessed month. Another misconception is that Muslims fast to experience what the underprivileged go through. While this may be the case, the ultimate reason is to fulfill a duty that God has placed on us, and that is the commandment to fast. Another misconception is that Muslims have to eat certain foods during Ramadan. [But,] Muslims are very diverse and can eat any food during Ramadan so long as it is halal, just like in any month. It was a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to break his fast with dates, so many Muslims follow this tradition, but it is not a requirement to break your fast with dates. Another misconception is that Muslims may dislike the month of Ramadan for its physical demands. On the contrary: many Muslims enjoy this month and look forward to it all year as it is filled with blessings and worship. — Husna Kider, Neuroscience (’24)
People may think Ramadan is a celebration lasting one day, but it is actually an entire month dedicated to fasting and worship. — Mehmet Hatip, Computer Science and Biostatistics (’23)
People think Muslims dread Ramadan and that we are miserable throughout the entire month. People keep asking “not even water?” every time we try to explain to them how we fast…and give concerning looks afterwards. Ramadan is a month meant to cleanse both the body and the soul and is looked forward to by many Muslims. It’s very discouraging when people act like it’s the most difficult thing to do and that it’s miserable. — Anonymous
Some people think that Ramadan is a dreaded time. Looking from the outside in, you might see it that way. It’s a time when your physical and mental willpower is tested. While this is true, it’s my favorite time of the year. There is something so special about Ramadan. The air is different. There is an intense sense of unity and community among all Muslims in the world. While we are all going through hardship, we are doing it together. It’s a really wholesome and fulfilling time. — Dalal Azzam, Biochemistry (‘22)
It is very common for people to think we still drink water when we are fasting, which is not true. Each time I tell people I cannot drink water, they get really confused and worried, thinking I cannot survive. We obviously do survive! – Merve Rida Bayraktar, Computer Science and Religious Studies (’23)
I don’t think people really understand how we fast and why we do so. Ramadan is not about “not eating.” It provides a time for spiritual cleansing and nourishment of the soul. We don’t eat during the day, but we do eat before sunrise and at sunset, where people indulge to their hearts’ desire. But they also eat with families and friends. Ramadan brings people together and helps us grow as individuals. I always feel like the best version of myself in Ramadan (minus those “hangry” moments because of course we slip up – we’re human at the end of the day!). – Saratu Garba, Public Health, Nutrition (’22)
That it is just about giving up food and water or that it’s a form of punishment. The month is a blessing, and we always remind ourselves of this. Most people pray for God to allow them to live long enough to reach the month of Ramadan. Most Muslims try and read the entire Quran during Ramadan, which is about an hour of reading a day, and this will take priority for a lot of people over schoolwork because this is a once-a-year thing. It’s a very spiritual time. — Yena Ismail, Public Health Policy and Management (’23)
How do you feel the University supports you (or doesn’t) during Ramadan?
I wish there were more iftars [fast-breaking meals] organized by UNC for Muslim students, or if the CDS hours were changed during Ramadan to accommodate iftar times. Time in Ramadan is really tight due to classes, finals exams and lab work, and meal prepping is tiring for Muslim students [then]. Free food events for Muslim students (halal food) would be super helpful. — Dalia Fleifel, Biochemistry and Biophysics, PhD program (’24)
I honestly do not feel the University supports the Muslim community during Ramadan because it is not acknowledged, nobody is aware that it is Ramadan and there are no events to raise awareness. — Fatoumatta Jangana, Psychology & Sociology (’22)
While I don’t feel like the entire University does it’s all to support Muslim students, some faculty and staff really support Muslim students. They go out of their way to be accommodating, more than what is required of them. They listen to our concerns, give us options, and help us overcome obstacles as a minority group. Carolina Dining Services, for example, has been great with listening to Muslim student concerns, giving us ideas, and working with us to come up with solutions tailored to our community’s needs — Dalal Azzam
The University provides religious accommodations in terms of excused absences related to Eid, but it does not acknowledge the month of Ramadan. It does not provide meals to fasting students at or for the times when we can eat (such as before dawn). It does not send an email to the UNC community about this month that many UNC community members are celebrating. It does not adequately support the MSA when they try to host nightly prayers that occur during the month. — Husna Kider
The University community is very open for diverse perspectives and lifestyles. Therefore, I don’t feel uncomfortable or lonely during Ramadan. I feel well supported by my teachers, friends and especially the MSA community. I feel not being supported in terms of food options on campus, even in normal circumstances. I believe this will become an even more significant challenge during Ramadan since all the food options will be closed by the. I believe the University should provide us alternative options for breaking our fast and communicate these early before Ramadan to relieve stress off the Muslim student body. — Merve Rida Bayraktar
The University does a great job of supporting me during Ramadan. More specifically, ROTC, which coordinates a large portion of my day to day during the week does a great job lightening the physical requirements during fasting hours and allowing for more physical activity to occur when I can properly hydrate. — Mohammad Qassem, Biology, Political Science (’24)
Most professors are extremely accommodating when it comes to the change in timings and availability during Ramadan. It is also very easy to find and ask for religious exemptions or rescheduling. The University has not supported Ramadan in that it does not accommodate for the mealtimes. Last semester, I lived on campus during Ramadan and the dining hall closed at 8 p.m. despite having to break my fast at 8:30. Some classes, such as labs, are also not flexible when it comes to leaving the lab momentarily to break your fast. — Yena Ismail
What is something you wish Carolina would do to allow you to properly experience Ramadan?
I don’t think University administration truly understand what it’s like to fast. They don’t know what it’s like to go a whole day without any food or water and walking around campus in the hot Carolina sun, having to go from back-to-back classes to student org meetings, exams, academic and professional obligations. I feel like if they took a day to fast with us Muslim students, they would understand why we need the accommodations we do and why we ask for extended dining hall hours, ARS accommodations for exams, closer parking spots or larger rooms in the Union. They don’t know. And they won’t unless they walk in our shoes for a day. — Dalal Azzam
Locate a room where we can pray and practice. — Mohamed Mahmoud, Genetics and Molecular Biology (’26)
Keep dining halls open for longer and serve food from traditionally Muslim cultures. Additionally, allow accommodations for students in terms of taking exams and completing classwork for those that may need it. — Aneesa Salahuddin, Biomedical Engineering (’24)
I want our experiences as Muslims to be valued and validated. At times, it feels like a silent battle with balancing one’s faith with the rigor of academics. On an individual basis with professors, I have had positive experiences where they have been understanding of my situation and made accommodations, which I greatly appreciate. These small gestures are what remind me that UNC is more than just “going to class.” It’s about fostering trustworthy relationships with the faculty. As great as it would be to have complete leniency with academics, I simply wish that more professors could be aware of Ramadan and the way it affects students’ worth ethic. I don’t want the incoming students to feel pressured or uncomfortable with speaking up when they feel overwhelmed. Ramadan is an annual occurrence that has lasting effects for all 365 days of the year. No Muslim should feel that they need to water down their faith to be successful, both in school and out in the world. — Saratu Garba
What do you look forward to most during Ramadan?
After dinner, you still keep eating even if you’re full to treat yourself and feel like you’re going to burst. It’s the best feeling ever. — Anonymous
I look forward to gatherings with friends and other Muslim UNC members. I look forward to the calmness and happiness vibes in the air! I look forward to praying more, reading the Qur’an, and improving my spiritual connection with God. Ramadan is always a needed stop amidst the craziness of the fast-paced world…a much needed spiritual and mind break! — Dalia Fleifel
Breaking fasts with my friends and family because it allows us to come together to celebrate the month and be thankful for our blessings. — Husna Kider
Praying with my community, letting my colleagues learn more about Ramadan, and developing my relationship with God. — Mehmet Hatip
Being together with my Muslim friends on campus since it is the first time we will be fasting at school during the school year. I think it will grow our friendships and sense of community as it unites us. — Merve Rida Bayraktar
The sense of unity in the community, not only between Muslims, but between non-Muslims and Muslims as well. Nothing makes me happier than when a friend or classmate approaches me to talk to or inquire about Ramadan. — Mohammad Qassem
I love how Ramadan brings me closer to my friends and family. As we prep to break our fasts, we usually spend time cooking together where everyone has a role and then we all eat together, sharing stories. The same is said when we prepare to start our fasts in the morning. I also love the nights in Ramadan. There’s something calming and peaceful about those nights and being up with tons of other people all with the same goal in mind; getting closer to Allah swt [subhanahu wa ta’ala, Arabic for “The most glorified, the most high”]. — Saratu Garba
Time to slow down and reflect, and communal iftars and prayers. — Semanur Karayaka
Sharing meals with my friends and family, eating good food, and getting closer to God through sacrifice, patience and prayer. — Suhailah Boukarfi, Public Policy, Global Studies, Data Science (’25)
How will this year’s Ramadan differ from previous years?
As a first-year student on campus, this will be my first Ramadan without my mom’s cooking and without having my family to eat with. — Anonymous
It’s the first one where I am away from my family. But it’s okay because I also have a family here at UNC. I have people that support me and make me feel at home here. The Muslim community at UNC feels like home. — Dalal Azzam
I don’t have classes, only lab work. I will be more in control of my working hours so I think I will get to enjoy Ramadan in the way I want to. Also, I made many new Muslim friends whom I am very excited to gather with and have iftar with them. Importantly, the Covid situation is getting better, thankfully, and I feel more comfortable to meet people and spend time with them in Ramadan. However, I still miss my family overseas and wish I could spend Ramadan with them. — Dalia Fleifel
I won’t be able to celebrate with my family. — Aneesa Salahuddin
It will be completely during school time rather than with family back home like previous years. — Sara Quitaishat, Psychology (’23)
This year will be different from previous years because I am different than before. The knowledge I have gained from previous Ramadans will help me grow even more this year. I will have new goals set out for me during this Ramadan. I will have new people I’m spending it with. It will be a new experience to some people and that’s what makes Ramadan an evolving experience. It also shifts in time, where in some years the hours fasting were shorter while this year it may be longer. And those longer hours, while we may struggle sometimes, just provide us with more room for self-discipline and respect for Islam. — Saratu Garba
This year’s Ramadan is going to be a lot harder because I won’t be at home with my family. I also won’t be eating home-cooked meals and breaking my fast the way I typically do at home, with a date and some Moroccan soup and a nice big dinner. I will also miss the night prayers at the mosque where I would see my friends. — Suhailah Boukarfi
This is the first Ramadan that will begin and end in a true in-person semester. It will be more challenging because a lot of the time you don’t choose an 8 a.m. class, remembering that you will still have to go to that class during Ramadan. — Yena Ismail
What are some of the personal challenges you face in not being able to celebrate Ramadan with your family?
You celebrate Ramadan with as many people as you can, especially your family. It’s a very community-based celebration and I’m afraid I’ll feel lonely this time since I’m the only Muslim in my suite. — Anonymous
I will be missing my family and the rituals we practice together. These are things I have done with my family ever since I was a kid and it’ll be hard doing them on my own this year. — Dalal Azzam
It is mostly the loneliness…and not having more people around to help with meal prepping, which his sometimes exhausting. Normally, we have iftar with family members in different houses almost every day of the entire 30 days of Ramadan! Spending it alone is sad and tiring. — Dalia Fleifel
Less food options, feeling lonely and a bit overwhelmed — Fatima Ofum, Biology (’25)
I live at home with my family so I celebrate Ramadan with them, but being a student takes up the majority of my time, so I am not able to fully take advantage of this blessed month as I would like to. — Husna Kider
I will miss our family meals with the excitement around the table of completing another day of fasting. It is really an aspect that defines our family and unites us as a social unit of our larger community. I believe being with my friends on campus as I break my fast will relieve that sadness and replace it with happiness. — Merve Rida Bayraktar (’23)
Feeling excluded and not connected to the holiday like I should be. Especially when I’m in classes all day and doing work all night, even when we break fast. It feels like any other day, which I really hate. — Aneesa Salahuddin
The biggest challenge is that sense of connection and natural rhythm we have when it comes to cooking meals. For years, I was accustomed to sharing the kitchen with 3-5 other people and creating traditional Nigerian meals and experimenting with new recipes (which can be scary when you can’t taste what you’re making!). — Saratu Garba
In a big university, you’re surrounded by so many different people, a lot of them not being Muslim. A lot of times, it can feel like you’re alone on this spiritual journey, so that sense of community and family that is so prominent in Ramadan is gone. — Suhaliah Boukarfi
How does the Muslim community at Carolina help one another?
We have a group chat where we share resources, chat and ask questions. I also think MSA is doing a great job at organizing nice events where Muslims get together and communicate. I am looking forward to getting graduate Muslim students together more (undergraduates are more active than us as graduate students). — Dalia Fleifel
Being kind and open to different conversations, supporting each other and pushing each other to be better by reminding each other to keep God in mind in our everyday activities. — Fatima Ofum
The Muslim community does a good job of having events and activities throughout the week, from the GBM (General Body Meeting) to the Wednesday activities, and the Friday congregational prayer. The prayer room is also very helpful. — Fatoumatta Jangana
The Muslim community is very compassionate and welcoming. We always greet each other, even those whom we don’t know. We are very inclusive and do our best to include all Muslims at our events and gatherings. — Husna Kider
The Muslim community collaborates with other organizations, such as CJAA (Community Justice, Abolition & Antiracism). It also hosts events such as MSA Live, where the Carolina Community is enriched by guest speakers and learning about one another. — Mehmet Hatip
The Muslim community [here] is one of the strongest aspects that ties my spirit to Carolina. It is wonderful to see each other on campus and greet “Salam,” meaning peace. The community gives me a sense of belonging at Carolina and I feel at home when I enter our MSA room in the Union. In Islam, all Muslims are considered brothers and sisters in faith, which is the relationship we embody amongst each other in the MSA. — Merve Rida Bayraktar
As Muslims, we are taught to always want for others what you’d want for yourself and to always help those around you. Everyone is our brother and sister in Islam. I truly believe that the Muslim community holds these values close and try to replicate them in their everyday life. Upperclassmen look out for the incoming students and lowerclassmen, and vice versa. MSA even has a sort of “buddy” system in place where they pair off incoming students with upperclassmen for guidance. We try to ensure that everyone has a place to feel welcomed. Places like the prayer room do just that. A simple “Salam” or wave may be enough to make someone feel seen. — Saratu Garba
The Muslim community at Carolina serves as a safe space for me and my Muslim brothers and sisters. Many members have offered to make iftars for other members and lead prayers and Quran reading sessions. We are a minority with very little representation on campus. However, our support, care and love for one another remind me that I am never alone in my experience and faith. — Suhailah Boukarfi
On Friday, April 1 at 7 p.m., MSA will host “fanoos,” a lantern lighting ceremony to celebrate the arrival of Ramadan to our campus. The celebration will take place in the Pit. Members of the UNC community will open the event with a few words, followed by the lantern-lighting and an outdoor prayer. All our welcome.
- Ramadan 2022 in Higher Education (Shahnaz Khawaja, M.A., LCMHC, NCC, LCAS, Assistant Director of Resilience and Recovery Strategies, Student Wellness, UNC)
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