Michael Wenye Li/Sun File Photo

Muslim students celebrating the month of Ramadan away from home are dealing with a lack of community support due to COVID-19 restrictions.

April 13, 2021

Cornell’s Muslim Students Observe Ramadan Despite Old and New Challenges

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Normally Ramadan is a festive community affair for Muslims to be mindful of their blessings and practice self-discipline, but for Mariam Obaji ’23, spending her first Ramadan away from home, it feels like she is observing alone.

Ramadan, a month-long event centered around fasting, prayer and community, began at sundown on Monday, April 12 and will end on May 12.

As part of the five pillars of Islam, many Muslims are fasting from dawn until iftar — an evening meal which is typically around 8 p.m. — each day of Ramadan. 

Cornell students observing the holiday have to balance this fast with their normal coursework, exams and extracurricular commitments.

Some students, like Obaji, a member of the Cornell Muslim Education and Cultural Association, had concerns about the dining services going into Ramadan. Obaji said that with the halal and kosher stations being taken away from North Star in an effort to limit crowding, she has found it difficult at times to get a balanced halal meal, which is especially important during Ramadan as she is not eating as much as normal.

However, this year, Cornell Dining has provided disposable take-out containers for students who opt to take their meals out of the dining hall before sundown in addition to pre-packaged halal meals available at North Star and Cook House for suhoor, the pre-fast meal that some students eat before sunrise, according to Dustin Cutler, the executive director of Cornell dining. 

Both dining halls will be open until 9 p.m. EDT, extending North Star’s hours by 30 minutes.

While Obaji cited past instances where the staff in the dining hall were not entirely informed on what halal meals were or what options were available to students, this year she began Ramadan with a positive dining hall experience.

“I went and picked up suhoor and I was really pleasantly surprised to find that most people that I spoke to knew what I was asking for and that made the process really easy. I thought the meal itself was also really good,” Obaji said. 

Obaji also mentioned that normally Muslim students rely on vegetarian options, but she has found that these meals may sometimes contain alcohol. She believes making this note where the menus are posted online can be beneficial to Muslim students who intend on eating these meals during Ramadan.

“Outside Ramadan, this would not be as big of a deal, but during Ramadan after fasting for about 14 hours, it would be nice to ensure we can eat the food before we walk into the dining hall,” said Obaji. 

Chaplain Yasin Ahmed, Cornell’s first Muslim chaplain, shared that Cornell dining even baked baklava, a traditional desert enjoyed in many Muslim countries, to give away on the first day of Ramadan.

“We couldn’t be more happy with the whole team from Dining, Marketing, Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making and Asian & Asian American Center!” Chaplain Ahmed wrote in an email to The Sun.

For some students, Ramadan falls during their exam period, which often means requesting accommodations.

“In the past three years, I have always had final exams during Ramadan but I have only ever gotten one of them changed because it was in the afternoon around 4 p.m. when I am very low on blood sugar,” said Asma Khan ’21. “I emailed the professors a few weeks in advance, and they were very accommodating.”

Atif Akhter ’22, a student involved with the Interfaith Council and MECA, said that he will have a few exams during the month of Ramadan, but since the online classes allow for flexibility of making exams available for the entire day, he is able to take them after he breaks his fast. However, he stressed the importance of students notifying their professors that they are observing.

Khan noted that in a Campus Connection email from Ryan Lombardi, vice president of student and campus life, there were linked resources for religious observance accommodations, which she found especially helpful since it provided a sample religious observance accommodation email for students to send their instructors.

Another concern in the past has been the unavailability of prayer spaces. While Anabel-Taylor Hall has prayer rooms for students to use, Obaji said that this is often inaccessible for students who have classes far from the building. 

Obaji and Akhter share the same inconvenience of traveling from the Agriculture Quad to reach prayer spaces like Willard-Straight Hall or Anabel-Taylor.

Khan said that the creation of a Muslim Life space in Willard-Straight helped with the issue of prayer space, but due to COVID-19, student access to the space is restricted.

Chaplain Ahmed said that often students are relegated to pray underneath stairs or are interrupted while praying in empty classrooms. “We have a long way to go to make the six hundred Muslims on campus feel ‘any person’ is welcomed with their whole selves including their spiritual identity,” said Chaplain Ahmed.

Khan explained that since many events involve communal eating and prayer, it is difficult to hold those events this semester. However, The Diwan Foundation — a foundation funded by Muslim alumni of Cornell University as a financial vehicle to support coordinated Muslim life programming at Cornell — is sponsoring iftar meals for all students through Campustown Pizza.

“Although Ramadan is a very spiritual and religious time, it is also a very happy and festive time for Muslims around the world,” Khan said. “Ramadan is especially hard for college students this year as not only are they away from their families, but the Cornell Muslim community is unable to share the festivities of Ramadan together.”

Chaplain Ahmed told The Sun that Cornell Muslim Life will be holding events throughout Ramadan, including guided reflections on the Quran and virtual Jummah services. He also reminded the Cornell Muslim community that with COVID-19 vaccinations being available, injections do not break fast.

Akhter is optimistic for the month ahead and is looking forward to some of the virtual events being held by different campus organizations. 

“Community gives you the strength and motivation to make it through the month, and without in-person gatherings this makes it difficult to stay in a positive mindset,” Akhter said. “I’m glad I’m on campus for Ramadan because it really will push me to grow. It is a challenge and I’m excited to see how this month goes.”