Members of the school community raise awareness about Ramadan


Sophie Rukin and Isabella Ciriello

“There’s a big misconception that Ramadan is only for fasting,” Mikail Akbar (11) said. “Actually, Ramadan is much more significant than that. It’s the month of not only fasting, but it is also the month of increased prayer, the month of reading the Qur’an, the month of doing charity, and in general, a month of doing more good deeds and abstaining from bad deeds.”

Ramadan holds important religious significance for Muslims across the world and can mean a variety of things to different people, Rizaa Fazal (10) said. “The purpose of Ramadan is to focus on giving something up to become better people through things like fasting and charity work,” she said.

This year, Ramadan began on April 3 and will end with the celebration of Eid-al-Fitr on May 2. Many Muslims commemorate it by breaking their fast with friends and family, along with exchanging gifts, Lamia Chowdhury (11) said. “It’s about being proud of the sacrifices you’ve made, whether it’s financially, giving to charity throughout the month, or fasting or just trying to increase your good deeds.”

Not every Muslim is required to fast for Ramadan, Emily Akbar (9) said. “Usually after children hit puberty fasting becomes mandatory, but you can try earlier, and it is encouraged to fast whenever you can,” she said. There are also exceptions for women on their period, pregnant women, people who are sick, and for those who physically cannot fast for other medical or physical reasons.

Parents’ opinions about their childrens’’ physical and mental readiness may also affect the age at which their children start fasting, Zain Lakhaney (10) said. Many parents let their children fast for a day around the age of 13, but not many kids begin fasting for the full month until later on, he said. Lakhaney first fasted when he was around nine years old.

Celebrating Ramadan looks different for each family, Myra Malik (11) said. “For my family, and less conservative Muslims, we don’t fast every day,” she said. On the days that Malik fasts, her family breaks their fast after sundown with a large meal called Iftar, she said. 

Iftar, an Arabic word which translates to “breaking the fast,” is a meal eaten as a community after sundown, Mikail said. Every night, Mikail and his family break their fast at their local mosque. “[Iftar] is very special for us because the community is together, and when we break our fast, the food’s completely free and provided by sponsors,” he said. “You see people that are poor, that are rich, and people of all different ethnicities, who come together to break the fast.” 

More religious Muslims usually fast for the whole month from dusk to dawn, Fazal said. “[Muslims] fast to relive the steps of the Prophet Muhammed who also fasted for thirty days during the month of Ramadan.”

During Ramadan, Mikail wakes up around 4:15 AM to eat the morning meal called Suhoor, which he eats to stay full and energized for the rest of the day. “This meal often consists of dates, which is very popular among Muslims since it is part of the prophetic tradition,” he said. The Prophet Muhammed usually ate dates in both his Suhoor and Iftar, so during Ramadan dates are commonly eaten to emulate his actions, Mikail said. After his meal, Mikail goes to his mosque for his first prayer of the day, he said.

Muslims are required to pray five times a day. The prayers include Fajr at sunrise, Dhuhr around noon, Asr later in the afternoon, Maghrib at sunset, and Isha at night, Mikail said. However, during Ramadan, there is also a prayer called Tarawih, which takes place after Isha, the last mandatory prayer of the day. Tarawih is a long and special prayer exclusive to Ramadan, where the Imam recites the entire 600 pages of the Quran over the 30 nights of Ramadan, Mikail said. During the Tarawih prayer, many people go to the mosque, making it more crowded than at other prayer times, he said. “It’s very spiritually moving when the whole community gets together just to worship,” he said.

According to the Family Handbook, students can talk with faculty members to receive appropriate accommodations for religious purposes. Even so, due to how draining fasting can be, Fazal does not think that there are sufficient accommodations at the school for students who are fasting, she said. She does not choose to fast everyday and worries teachers will not be accommodating on the days she does fast, she said. “I’m scared my teachers won’t accommodate my tests or quizzes, so I usually don’t choose to fast on days I have tests or quizzes.”

In contrast, Mikail feels as though the school and teachers are very accommodating towards his religious needs, he said. “I think my teachers know about Ramadan, but I try to make it my priority to let my teachers know what I’m going through during the month.”

During Ramadan, Mikail typically lets his teachers know that he may have to spend less time dedicated to his work and may ask to move tests around or get breaks on his homework, he said. “It’s really good for me because they are able to accommodate me during Ramadan and make my life a little bit easier.”

Emily also believes that the school provides more than adequate accommodations for Ramadan, she said. She is allowed to skip PE during Ramadan, which helps her avoid getting too tired or thirsty, she said. 

Emily also appreciates that she is able to go to the library during her lunch period instead of the cafeteria, she said. Emily finds it difficult to socialize with her friends during Ramadan, because she cannot eat lunch while fasting, she said. “I still connect with friends over text and after school, but not during lunch.”

Lakhaney also finds it hard to be around food at school since it is hard for him to fast around people who are eating because he craves food when he sees it, which makes it difficult for him to be around people who are eating, he said. It took Lakhaney a few days to adjust to this at the beginning of Ramadan, he said. 

Other students, like Mikail, find it difficult to deal with sleep deprivation during the school day because he wakes up early to eat the Suhoor meal and pray the Fajr prayer, he said. “I’m probably only sleeping around three to four hours everyday, so this can be challenging,” Mikail said. “I have had to find unconventional places to sleep, like on the bus.”

Mikail also struggles at times with not being able to drink water throughout the day, especially during warm weather, he said. “People who have fasted for Ramadan, many times have gotten used to the hunger, but the lack of water can hurt, especially during the summer months when it’s hot,” he said. Although it is easier to avoid drinking water during the cooler months, you can get very thirsty throughout the day even if you’re just speaking, he said.

Some important components of Ramadan conflict with the timing of the school day, Mikail said. Two of the five daily prayers occur during school, so instead of doing them while in school, Mikail waits until he gets home to do them, he said.

Mikail works to find a balance and uses his extra PE free and lunch as work periods, he said. “With all the things that I have, I’m just constantly in the library trying to do work because when I get home, I have little to no time to do any homework.”

Even so, Mikail makes sure religion takes precedence over school work. “For me, religion is definitely the priority,” he said. “Without a doubt, if it’s between school or religion, I’m going to choose religion at the expense of my schoolwork.”

Emily also tries to complete schoolwork in between prayer and during her free periods so she has time to dedicate to her religious activities at home, she said. She also uses weekends to visit the mosque and fulfill her religious obligations, she said.

Unlike Mikail, Fazal feels that her education takes precedence, she said. “A lot of the Muslims at Horace Mann have probably had to give up a lot of their religious obligations in order to keep up with the school.”

While Malik used to fast at school, she has stopped because it is too hard for her, she said. “Personally, my body can’t handle it if I don’t eat,” she said. “I get so tired and fatigued throughout the day that there is pretty much no point to me coming to school because I’ll forget anything I learned the entire day.”

While Malik no longer fasts at school, she still finds a place for religion in her life, she said. “It’s definitely hard to balance religion and schoolwork, but if you are able to figure out what you personally want from your religion it becomes a lot easier,” Malik said. “I don’t find a lot of value in following every single tradition to the tee, so I just kind of do whatever makes me feel the happiest or most connected to religion.”

Traditions such as fasting are discussed in the Religion in History, Studies in French, and French Seminar classes where teachers incorporate content relating to Ramadan and Islam into the curricula. In his Religion in History class, Upper Division (UD) history teacher Peter Reed teaches about asceticism, the practice of abstaining from physical pleasures, in relation to different religions including Islam. “Within the context of the class, I tend to focus less on specific practices and more on different types of practice,” he said.

Hanah Cohen (11), who takes Religion in History, enjoyed learning about asceticism, she said. “I did not [have any prior knowledge about it] beyond having some friends who participate in Ramadan.”

In Upper Division French teachers Caroline Dolan and Niamh Duggan’s Studies in French and Dolan’s French Seminar classes, students read Kiffe kiffe demain by Faïza Guène, a book that follows the main character, Doria, as she navigates living in France as a Muslim teenager and grapples with the tension between her ethnic, gender, and religious identities as well as celebrates their joys, Dolan said.

The French department decided to integrate the book into the curriculum because a large percentage of the French-speaking world is Muslim, Dolan said. “It was really important to teach about Islam because we want our students to be able to interact with real people,” she said. “That means learning about who people are and what is important to them.”

Dolan has taught the book for the last two years in the Studies class and for slightly longer in the French Seminar class. “Last year, we saw a great opportunity to integrate the book into the Studies class, so we decided to make that switch this year so it is the last time we are teaching it in Seminar but it will continue to be a guiding text in Studies,” she said.

Dolan and her colleagues believe it is important for the French department to familiarize themselves with Muslim cultures, so they can answer questions from students in class while they learn about Muslim practices, traditions, and holidays, she said. In order to prepare to teach the material in the book, Dolan attended talkbacks and presentations hosted by the Horace Mann for Islamic Awareness Club about common misconceptions surrounding Islamic culture, she said. Dolan also reads complimentary texts independently and with her students. “We teachers are always learning too, so research is an opportunity for us to be better informed,” she said.

In general, Dolan thinks that learning about other cultures is the best way to grow as individuals, she said. “It just creates a better sense of community when we want to have mutual understanding for people”

Raghav Poddar (10) enjoyed learning about Islamic practices and traditions that are observed during the month of Ramadan in his Studies in French class, he said. In Kiffe Kiffe Demain, a character hides dates in her blouse to eat before sunrise because her boss doesn’t recognize Ramadan in the workplace, he said. “It was eye-opening because I wasn’t aware of the issues that many people face.”

Scarlett Goldberg (11) had limited knowledge about Ramadan until reading the book for class, she said. “I don’t even know that much about it, which is kind of crazy because I know it’s a big holiday for a lot of people.”

Overall, Malik feels that there is a good amount of awareness of Islam, and hopes that people continue to learn about Islam, she said. “To me, Ramadan is a time to reflect on what you have, and reflect on how you can be more grateful for your community and how best you can support others in your community.”