Otterbein Students Find Spiritual Growth (and Final Exams) during Ramadan 

Posted Apr 08, 2022

Members of the Otterbein community are observing Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims and a time for spiritual reflection and growth. The start of Ramadan is based on the lunar cycle. This year, it started on the evening of April 2 and will end on the evening of May 2. For students, that means Ramadan will coincide with their final exams the week of April 25. 

Ramadan is both a personal process and deeply communal experience. During Ramadan, Muslims typically wake up very early in the morning (as early as 4 a.m.) to pray and eat a meal before the sun rises. The fast begins at dawn and extends until sundown each day. Fasting means no food or drink (including water) during that time. Those unable to fast, such as pregnant, nursing, or menstruating women, individuals who are ill or elderly, and children, are exempt from fasting in order to do no harm. 

While abstaining from food and drink may seem difficult in the perception of non-Muslims, the most challenging part of Ramadan is the intent to be self-aware and conscious of one’s actions, thoughts, and behaviors to strengthen their spirituality and closeness to God. 

To learn more about Ramadan and what it means to the students who observe it, we talked to two members of Otterbein’s Muslim Student Association (MSA): Yasmeen Khafagy, who serves as co-president, and Sammer Hamed ’21, who will complete his master of science in allied health (MSAH) at Otterbein this summer. 

Muslims break their fast at sunset, the time for Maghrib Prayers — the fourth prayer of the day. The breaking of the fast is called Iftar.  This is a family meal or a meal with a larger community. Following the Iftar meal, the fifth prayer of the day, Isha, is observed. During Ramadan, families gather at the mosque after Isha for Taraweeh prayers, which are longer, more complex prayers. By the time these prayers are concluded, it is usually quite late, but even after the observance is complete, there is time at the mosque for families to simply gather together as a community.

What does the observance of Ramadan bring to you personally?  

Yasmeen: For me it brings a sense of peace in my life. It is the one time where I can truly put everything on the back burner and focus on finding  inner peace. A lot of Ramadan is being asked to strengthen our Iman, or in other words our faith, and part of that is this notion of peace. My favorite part of Ramadan is the Taraweeh prayer which can be from 15-30 minutes long in my house. But the quietness and peace that washes over me is so powerful that I am willing to put a pause on everything.  

Sammer: To me, Ramadan is about cleansing my mind and reminding me of how fortunate I am for my life. It puts you in the shoes of those who do not have food to eat, or water to drink. It humbles those in observance of the holy month, something that I feel is needed in life. 

What would you tell people about the process of fasting?  

Yasmeen: The hardest part is not the actual fast! Sure, when you’re younger that is the hardest part, but as you get older it’s the other aspects of the fast, such as not backbiting or distancing ourselves from our day-to-day sins. It’s much more mental than it is physical, and I don’t think people can understand that until they’ve intentionally fasted not only from eating, but also wrongdoings. 

Sammer: The process of fasting involves the restriction of all food, drink, or other vices such as smoking, etc., from the first prayer of the day at dawn, to sunset. The question I get asked most often is if I get used to the fast. The answer is yes, although I have my good and bad days. It all depends on how you prepare your meals and hydration. 

What are evening dinners with family and friends like?  

Yasmeen: It feels very filling and not just because of the food. For the most part, in my home we break our fast with our nuclear family, but when we do have more people over it’s a lot more special. Being a first-generation immigrant, seeing someone else practice the same culture or speak the same tongue makes me feel whole in my identity. So often I feel disconnected and partial because the world around me doesn’t reflect a lot of who I am, and while our diversity is beautiful, it can also feel very isolating at times. When we have people over for iftar, it doesn’t feel so lonely. There’s plenty of food on the table, ranging from grape leaves to roast beef, and even more laughter and love — and for a moment it doesn’t feel like you’re all alone. 

Sammer: Evening dinners are a great time, not just because of the food! It is a time to connect and break bread with your family and remember the important things in life. Especially now that I have transitioned to a job that requires long hours, I cherish the time I have with my family during this time more and more every year. 

Are there any traditional foods you enjoy for your Iftar? 

Yasmeen: My favorite foods for Iftar have to be keba and stuffed grape leaves. Keba is like a fried meatball with pine nuts and to be honest I mostly just eat them because they have pine nuts in them. My mom also makes the best stuffed grape leaves, and we’ll have them at least four times throughout the month. 

Sammer: My favorite “traditional” food to eat is called qatayef, a sweet that is often reserved for Ramadan. It has a dumpling outside similar to a pancake, stuffed with either sweet nuts or a sweet cheese/cream inside. 

Why are the last 10 days of Ramadan the most holy? 

Yasmeen: The last 10 days are the holiest as Laylatul Qadr occurs during those 10 days. We, as Muslims, are not told which night it is but we are told through the Quran that it is during the last 10 nights. Laylatul Qadr and the last 10 nights are when Allah is even more merciful and the Prophet (peace be upon him) says that whoever prays out of sincerity will have all their past sins forgiven. Prayer, reading of the Quran, and overall acts of worship are encouraged even more so for those last 10 nights. 

Sammer: The last 10 days are the most holy because Laylatul Qadr, or “the night of power,” takes place during this time. Laylatul Qadr occurs during the odd nights (21st, 23rd, 25th, 29th) of the last 10 days of Ramadan. It is said that during this night, all prayers hold an extra weight and become more powerful, it is also mentioned that angels descend upon the earth during this night, in recognition of the blessings that can occur on this night. 

What would you like people to understand about Ramadan? 

Yasmeen: I want people to understand that this isn’t burdensome. We truly do look forward to Ramadan and yes, while we may complain of hunger or thirst, we overall view Ramadan as a joyous occasion. It is one of the only times in my life where I have no other choice but to do better and try to mend my own soul. To reflect on my actions, thoughts, and words. Don’t pity me for fasting, because I am ultimately working towards a better me by doing this. 

My favorite question that I’ve been asked as of late was “how can I support someone through this mentally?” I love this question for two reasons. First, it acknowledges that this month is more about reflection and spirituality rather than abstaining from food. Secondly, it is a question with intent and care, and shows how the person cares.   

Sammer: I always say that everyone should try at least one day of fasting to put yourself in the shoes of those observing, as well as those who are less fortunate. I emphasize this because it’s not just about not eating, it’s about recognizing the bigger picture of the world around you. 

How will having final exams during Ramadan impact Muslim students? 

Yasmeen: Final exams will obviously take up a lot of time that Muslim students would much rather use for worship but so long as we all work together, I think things should go fine. I’ve always encouraged others to put themselves in my shoes and try and understand how much more stressful it is trying to study, pray, fast, etc. — all at the same time.  

Sammer: For me, Ramadan was going on during finals last year. The thing that I would like educators to take into consideration is the fatigue levels of students observing the fast. Students are awake from the hours of 4 to 5 a.m. to eat and won’t eat again until 8:30-9 p.m. — almost 15 hours nonstop. As long as teachers recognize this and make arrangements if needed, it should be ok.