The spiritual joys of Ramadan

Northeastern students Omar Shoura and Shoyaib Shaik pray in the Sacred Space in Ell Hall.
Northeastern students Omar Shoura and Shoyaib Shaik pray in the Sacred Space in Ell Hall. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Friday evening, is known as a time of fasting during daylight hours. But there is so much more to the holiday, say student members of the Islamic Society of Northeastern University (ISNU).

“I’ve been counting down the days,” says Laila Kibodya, a first-year behavioral neuroscience student from Springfield, Massachusetts. “People don’t understand the spiritual gain you get from the month. After years of doing it over and over again, food is the last thing on my mind. It’s more, ‘How can I be a better Muslim this month? What habits do I want to start practicing during the month—and hope to keep after the month?’”

Muslims celebrate Ramadan as the month when God began to reveal the Quran’s initial verses to the Prophet Mohammed.

“We believe the devil is locked up [during Ramadan] and so, if you do a good deed, it’s going to be multiplied 70-fold,” says Shoyaib Shaik, the co-president of ISNU and a second-year student in bioengineering and biochemistry. “We’re making that effort to do as much as we can, to maximize our time. I spend a good portion of it by studying the Quran, by diving deeper and learning more about the religion.”

Northeastern students (clockwise from left) Omar Shoura, Laila Kibodya, and Shoyaib Shaik have been “counting down the days” in anticipation of Ramadan, which begins Friday evening. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Charitable giving is another way of connecting to the spirit of Ramadan. The discipline of fasting contributes to feelings of empathy for those who don’t have food, says Omar Shoura, a second-year student in computer science.

“If you’re able to withhold the most basic desire, which is food, then you’re training yourself to be able to withhold yourself from other desires that are taking away from your worldly and your spiritual goals,” says Shoura, who serves as the community outreach coordinator at ISNU. “To me, that’s the biggest training from fasting.”

Shoura finds that he appreciates the deeper religious meanings of the holiday more so now than when he lived in Alexandria, Egypt.

“When I grew up in Egypt, Ramadan was more about culture and community,” Shoura says. “You take it for granted. You walk outside and there are decorations and you hear the call to prayer reverberating through the streets. It’s very present, and it’s very easy to actually ignore. Whereas here, we have to work for it: I’ve had to go 30 minutes away to the nearest mosque. It wasn’t just down the street.”

Northeastern student Shoyaib Shaik lays out his prayer rug before observing Muslim afternoon prayers. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Shaik had a similar experience when celebrating Ramadan in India.

“Growing up in America makes you have to find the culture yourself,” says Shaik, who is from Franklin, Massachusetts. “You have to find the spirit of the holiday yourself, have to grow into the religion, and it’s something that we have to adapt to while living in the U.S., away from a cultural center [of Islam] really.”

The COVID-19 pandemic changed a traditional dynamic of Ramadan over the past two years, says Fayez Khwaja, a Muslim spiritual advisor at Northeastern.

“COVID sort of broke the community aspects of Ramadan,” Khwaja says of the periods of isolation that were enforced by the pandemic. “For many people, it’s fun to not cook at home. You actually eat at the mosque, and the mosques [traditionally] are flourishing at this time.

“But then COVID rejuvenated another aspect: It meant more that family units were functioning together and making Ramadan the best they could. And some of that is going to stick. In my family, we’re actually debating, do we want to go back to the mosque? Because it was really a lot of fun last year, and we enjoyed it.”

During Ramadan, a service operated by the Northeastern University Police Department will shuttle people between campus and the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) in Roxbury for evening prayers.

Because the morning meal must be eaten before dawn, students may request a box of food the night before via Northeastern dining services. Additionally, ISNU is hosting evening meals to break fast twice per week.

During their recent conversation at Northeastern’s Sacred Space, the students agreed that Ramadan helps them to focus on family and friends. Though they eat less often, the quality of their meals tends to be better as part of the celebration. Spiritual relationships are deepened. Progress is made in all kinds of ways.

“It makes things more clear for me,” says Kibodya, who serves as ISNU’s events coordinator. “When I’m planning what to do with my day, I find myself planning around prayer a lot more—which is a really good habit to get into. I find myself actively practicing the religion in place of eating and doing other things.”
As much as the benefits of Ramadan transcend the sacrifices of fasting, notes Shoura, the sacrifice is real.

“We would ask that teachers have awareness and understanding, knowing what this month is about,” he says. “I’m not saying absolve us of all assignments. But if I have a morning class and we spent the whole night in prayer, consider recording the class so we can look at it later; or maybe push an assignment to the weekend if it’s been particularly a busy week. It’s just being aware and having a certain level of flexibility.”

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