Sameer Khan ’24 will be fasting on his birthday, and he can’t wait. “[Ramadan] is a celebration of faith and devotion to Islam, and I’m really excited to plan my birthday around this,” he says. “It would be interesting to celebrate turning 20 at a 5 a.m. suhoor meal in the morning. I’m looking forward to it.”
Two years since the pandemic called off much-anticipated religious observations, Muslim students on campus have been celebrating the full return of an in-person Ramadan, breaking their fast nightly at the Student Organization Center at Hilles. For many Muslim freshmen and sophomores on campus, this is their first Ramadan away from home. For Khan, this month marks his first Ramadan observation at Harvard and first religious celebration that coincides with his birthday.
Ramadan begins with the sighting of a new crescent moon, which happens in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. This religious period is regarded as the holiest month in the Islamic culture; many Muslims believe that it marks the time when the Quran, the Islamic holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in 601 AD.
“Through fasting, praying and self-reflections, we build stronger connections with God and realize that there’s more to life rather than the immediate things that you interact with,'' Fouzia Gaza ’22 says. This year, Ramadan began on the evening of Saturday, April 2 and ended on Monday, May 2 with Eid al-Fitr celebrations, the “Feast of Breaking the Fast” that concludes the month spent fasting from dawn to sunset.
Beyond taking time for introspection, many Muslim students also dedicate this time to growing closer to their community. Every night, they congregate in the main hall of the SOCH to sit iftar, post-sunset dinners organized by Harvard’s Muslim Chaplains in collaboration with Crimson Catering and Harvard University Dining Service. The diverse menu has included Egyptian, Turkish, American, and Chinese cuisine.
“This year is the first time we are doing Ramadan iftar dinners for all 30 nights of Ramadan,” says Khalil Abdur-Rashid, one of the Muslim chaplains. “It’s very crowded, and we are so thankful to have a team of volunteers to make this happen.”
The iftar dinner I attended this past week was just as the chaplain described it: crowded, chaotic, and above all, cozy.
In the main hall and prayer room, little kids ran up and down, laughing and playing. Outside, students, family, and friends formed lines stretching across the SOCH to get food. Then, sitting with arms and elbows touching around the long table, they happily shared a sumptuous meal after the long fast. Before the call to prayers at around 8:45 p.m., groups of friends gathered in circles in the prayer room to catch up and share about their days. Amid a bustling and busy campus beyond, the communal atmosphere during the iftar brought a moment of warmth and peace.
“Seeing people from all different Harvard schools across all backgrounds and nationalities has been a wonderful experience,” says Sana Shahul ’25, a freshman who has been volunteering at the iftar dinners since the start of Ramadan.
Besides dining in the SOCH, some students also gather to cook their suhoor meal each morning in Mather House. Gaza and her roommate, Hayat Alkadir ’22, both Mather residents, have been hosting early morning sehri (a Pakistani term for suhoor) for Muslim students living in the River houses. HUDS provides food for students to prepare hot suhoor/sehri in their designated house kitchen early every morning.
In addition, the Muslim chaplains also work with HUDS to arrange meals for students. Students can pick up a pre-made suhoor bag with a hard-boiled egg and bagel with cream cheese, to eat the next morning before sunrise.
However, many students are still facing difficulties celebrating Ramadan during a busy semester with such irregular eating and sleep schedules.
Raza says she is excited to see many new changes now that celebrations are in-person, and she is grateful for the iftar and suhoor preparations Harvard has implemented. However, she believes that the school could be more communicative about bag meal pick-up places, increase house kitchen access, and improve employee awareness of Muslim students’ Ramadan celebration during the month.
Omar Zeidan ’25 also mentioned the possibility of extending dinner hours past 7:30 p.m. such that hot food options are still available for Muslim students when they break their daily fast, if they don’t have time to go all the way to the SOCH. “We break our fast at like 7:20, so that gives us 10 minutes to get food,” he says. Zeidan will often take his food to go and reheat it later.
In response to these criticisms, Crista Martin, HUDS Director for Strategic Initiatives and Communication, said in an email correspondence that the dining service welcomes this feedback for improvement, and will “work to continuously improve supports for the diverse needs of our community.”
The chaplains are working with Harvard to improve their Ramadan programming from this feedback. They continue to raise religious literacy in the community by leading trainings for HUDS managers and University employees, as well as by having conversations with students about Ramadan.
“I think we appreciate being together as a community and we appreciate the [University] support, and I can tell you that our Muslim students seem to really appreciate the idea of not having to worry about what they will eat for iftar, and instead enjoying meeting other students and members of community,” chaplain Samia Omar says.