Notes from the Brandeis Muslim Chaplain about Ramadan and student accomodations

How do Muslims Observe Fasts and Prayers in Ramadan?

Fasting generally entails abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations from before the first light of dawn until the setting of the sun. Muslims are required to fast on each of the 29 to 30 days of Ramadan. If unable to fast, charity or fasting days outside Ramadan may suffice. A pre-dawn meal is common and considered to be a highly meritorious practice. Breaking fast at sundown is often done with dates and milk, followed by a fuller meal after the evening prayers. In addition to the five daily prayers, a very important optional practice is to gather for additional communal prayers after the night prayer each night of the month. This prayer is called Tarawih.

What and When is Ramadan?

The holy month of Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic lunar calendar. It is a month of fasting, worship, service, communal gathering, and spiritual development. Fasting in Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Since there are 12 lunar months superimposed over 12 solar months, Ramadan “moves back” about 11 days per solar year. In 2024, the first day of fasting is expected to be March 11, though given differing interpretive schools among Muslim communities, some may declare the month to begin a day before or after the predicted date. Likewise, the holiday commemorating the end of fasting, most often called Eid al-Fitr in the US, may fall on different days according to varying family, cultural, or interpretive preferences.

The Eid holiday that marks the end of fasting is expected around April 9 (dates may vary). It consists of a congregational prayer in the morning followed by visiting family and friends. The full day of Eid is a holiday, not just the morning prayers, and many will choose to take the day off. As such, it is an excused absence per the Academic Coursework and Religious Observance Policy. Others may prefer to return to school or work and take exams on Eid. In some cultures, the two days after Eid are also counted as part of the holiday.

Key takeaways:
  • Fasting is defined as no food, drink, or sexual relations from before the first light of dawn until the setting of the sun.
  • Ramadan will be approximately March 10 - April 9 in 2024.
  • Fasting times in 2024 are between 5:46 a.m. and 6:48 p.m. at the beginning of Ramadan and 4:52 a.m.- 7:21p.m. by the end of Ramadan.
  • Some may start fasting earlier and break fast later.

Diversity of practice:

As mentioned above, the start and end of Ramadan may be a matter of difference of opinion, and some may start and/or end on dates different from other students, staff, or faculty. The daily start and end of fasting may also differ according to interpretive schools, so it is not uncommon for one group of Muslims on a college campus to break fast immediately after sundown and others to delay for 10 or more minutes. Some may be comfortable speaking about whether or not they are fasting, but since the reasons for not fasting can be very personal and private, it is generally better not to ask if one is fasting.

While dates and milk have a religious root as fast-breaking foods, there is tremendous cultural diversity in preferred Ramadan cuisines. Some cultural traditions single out the pre-dawn meal for large and hearty meals, preferring light fast-breaking meals. Other cultural traditions may observe only a light pre-dawn meal while enjoying large fast-breaking meals. In some contemporary cultures, restaurants and cafes stay open all night and a culinary “night life” emerges.

Culture also plays an important role in determining how Ramadan is observed beyond fasting and fast-breaking. Some may see their primary observances to be fasting, but others may consider it a time for socializing, visiting family and friends, and increasing in acts of worship including prayer or reciting the Qur’an in its entirety over the course of the month.

There are points of unity as well as significant diversity in manner and degree of observance.

  • Each individual experiences the challenges of Ramadan differently.
  • Some people are excused from fasting temporarily or permanently.
  • Asking someone if they are fasting can be uncomfortable for various reasons.
  • In a health emergency, one can break their fast.

Health and fasting:

It is important to know that if there is a health emergency, Muslims can break their fast. Fasting is meant to be a spiritual challenge, but not a threat to one’s health. As for those adults who are ill, traveling, menstruating or experiencing postnatal bleeding, or excused from fasting due to a medical condition wherein fasting would cause harm, they are excused from fasting and either make up the fast later in the year or feed the needy as a charitable expiation.

Accommodations for students who are fasting:

Each Muslim will experience Ramadan differently and there will often be a significant range of engagement with fasting, prayer, and communal gathering. Some Muslims do not change their daily routines due to fasting, and it is not uncommon for athletes and others to maintain fitness routines while fasting. Others, however, may find the physical and mental demands of fasting and daily prayers to be extremely challenging both mentally and physically. Each individual will differ in their ability to maintain their normal routines and there can be a significant range in ability and requested accommodation.

The last ten nights of Ramadan are especially important and many Muslims will increase in their nightly prayers and devotion.

As we all aim to help our students, staff, faculty, and broader community to perform at their best while answering the call of their religious commitments, we are fortunate to have many options available to us that should ensure that no one will be prevented from their academic or professional obligations due to their religious beliefs and practices.

Commonly requested accommodations may include rescheduling exams, presentations, or assignment deadlines for times of day where mental clarity is not impeded by fasting. For some this might be early in the morning, for others, this might be well after sundown prayers, fast breaking, and ample time to digest.

For those in classes at the time of sundown, some may request a significant break for ritual washing before prayer, breaking fast, and praying the evening prayer. Others may merely drink some water and eat a snack during class, waiting until after class for a fuller meal and the evening prayer. Not all Muslims will observe both the prayer and the fast, and it is not uncommon for some to fast but not pray.

Key takeaways:
  • Rescheduling exam, presentation, or assignment deadlines in Ramadan for times of day where mental clarity is not impeded by fasting as well as on the day of Eid.
  • Excused absence from class around sundown to allow time for fast-breaking (food and water), ritual ablutions, and evening prayers.
  • Decreased quantity of in-class participation.

Student perspectives on Ramadan:

"Ramadan is the time of year I look forward to the most as it is a time for me to journey inwards. Ramadan allows us to connect with our inner-selves as a collective, and reflect upon the progress we have made towards becoming better people and the work that still needs to be done moving forward. While not eating or drinking is only a part of the Ramadan experience, it is most certainly not the whole. This month of reflection and sacrifice compels us to think of those who do not have regular access to food and water all year round, it calls upon us to consider our shortcomings in our relationships with others, and it enables us to strengthen our bond with the rest of humanity for the sake of Allah. Some challenges I have faced over the past few years are the following: I have had finals consistently during Ramadan for the past 4 years, which takes away from the time and attention needed for the kind of reflection described above. I have also found it extremely difficult to perform well academically during the daytime while doing better in the night time. I am sure that many of my peers can relate to this. I hope that this Ramadan allows us to come together in unity and reflect upon the things that matter for a richer life experience through our connectedness with the Almighty." -- Hamza '23

“Ramadan has both religious and personal significance for me, as I get to meditate and connect with my family thousands of miles away from home. Fasting is an invigorating spiritual experience for me, but my biggest challenge has always been getting through the same workday without caffeine and a disjointed sleep schedule. Though I eventually get used to it, I feel it's a conversation I need to have every year with my colleagues as to why my schedule has shifted or my priorities may differ slightly.” -- Rabia, PhD Candidate

“Ramadan is the time where I spend the most time with family and working on being a better Muslim. During Ramadan, my family and I eat together every evening and spend quality time together which is something we are not privileged to do on a daily basis. …. Fasting affects how I function throughout the day and how I interact with my peers. I devote a lot of my time to better my mental health, my connection with Allah and develop healthy habits that will stick with me even after Ramadan. I will be disheartened on the nights that I have to compromise following my faith in a way that I am comfortable due to school. Although my name is anonymous, I promise I am a good student who always shoots above and beyond, I will uphold my responsibilities as a student. I would greatly appreciate if my professors and peers understand the feeling of disconnect that comes with not being around family for the warm delicious iftars (fast-breaking meals) made with care and love, the hugs of my grandmother, the laughter with my cousins and the sense of belonging that comes with being a Muslim when praying with my family.” -- Student, ‘21