One thousand four hundred and one years ago this month, the Prophet Muhammed sat in the Arabian desert, and in the silence, heard the voice of the archangel Gabriel. As he looked into the night sky, the messenger of Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, to the prophet Muhammad. One thousand, four hundred and one years later, Muslims spend the month of August marking the event by fasting for thirty days from sunrise to sunset, an exercise in self-discipline and self-renewal.
A few Muslims in America also mark the event with a ritual Muhammed could hardly have imagined – freshman orientation.
This is the second year in recent times that Ramadan has fallen on freshman orientation at Swarthmore. The dates of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, are determined by the Islamic lunar calendar, which has twelve months, of which Ramadan is the ninth. Ramadan travels “backward” on the solar calendar, so 2009 was the last year that Ramadan did not coincide with orientation, as it began on September 1st. This year, Ramadan began on August 1st, 2011, and at Swarthmore, the sun is risen from around from 6:30am to 7:45pm – after which, Sharples is already closed.
The Muslim Students Association, Office for Religious and Spiritual Life, and Dining Services coordinate to make sure that students are accommodated. Because Maghrib, the prayer time at sunset when observers break fast, occurs after Sharples’ hours, Dining Services arranges for students to get takeout boxes to eat at sundown. Karim Sariahmed, co-director of the Muslim Students Association, explained that Dining Services is “usually pretty good” about making the arrangements. Swarthmore doesn’t know how many students they will need to prepare boxed meals for before they arrive. As Sariahmed told the Gazette, “some students choose not to share their religious identity [before they arrive on campus], and some students don’t identify as Muslim but still fast for Ramadan.”
Nonetheless, when students arrive on campus, the MSA works to make sure that those who are fasting, as Sariahmed said, have “a supportive community away from home where students, especially freshmen, can break fast together and feel like a part of something.” According to Sariahmed, “the actual act of fasting in itself is an exercise is self-control. It is physically and spiritually cleansing, especially for someone living in a society that I feel is obsessed with consumption.” Ramadan commonly takes on meaning beyond its strictly religious significance. “As a child of immigrants, ” Sariahmed explains, “it is important to me to retain my ancestors traditions and identity. Representing that in a positive way is very important to me, especially since I’m a minority.”