Rekindling Our Humanity
Muhammad Ammar '24 discusses how he and other Muslim Bennington students are observing the holy month of Ramadan.
By Mary Brothers '22
For Muhammad Ammar ‘24, a typical day as a student observing Ramadan begins with getting up at 4:00 am to have the first meal of the day before sunrise.
Back home in Pakistan, Ammar would usually experience this ritual as a communal feast with family and friends, but, here, in a dorm room, it’s a little more isolating.
“[Last year] one of my loneliest times would be when I would wake up before dawn, go and heat up a bagel or something and then just sit in the common room by myself and eat it,” said Ammar.
Now in his second year at Bennington and anticipating his second observance of Ramdan as a student on campus, he is grateful for the growth of the College’s Muslim community.
“Last year, we had around seven students who were observing Ramadan. This year, we have about 17. It's a much bigger community, and everyone has ideas and everyone wants to come together,” said Ammar.
Ramadan, which begins this year at sundown on April 1, is a holy month for followers of Islam in which they fast from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from all food and drink– including water. After sunset each night, Ammar joins Muslims around the world in breaking the fast. Ammar will celebrate by getting together with other practicing students, eating a single date—a sacred fruit in Islamic culture—and drinking water. The rest of the evening is divided between finally eating a full meal, praying, and schoolwork.
“For me, Ramadan is a month that rekindles my humanity. It helps me to zoom out of myself and look at society as a whole because being hungry and being without water reminds me of those who are having to do that involuntarily,” said Ammar. “It’s a special time to also give a lot to charity. Back home, we organize a lot of communal meals, so that no one goes unfed. In Islam, there is mandatory charity that you're supposed to do every year, so many people use Ramadan as the time to do that because Ramadan really hits them with why it's so important to do charity.”
For Ammar, one of the biggest differences between celebrating Ramadan at home in Pakistan and here on campus is the insulating effect it can have.
I'm glad that we're starting to build a community around this celebration
Muhammad Ammar '24
“Here, it really hits you how alone you are in observing this. Back home, Ramadan is a radical shift from everyday life, where you go from doing everything normally to having your entire routine centered around the sun. You're not eating or drinking, and that changes you a little bit,” said Ammar. “Over here, that change is especially profound because you're one of very few people doing it. Everyone around you is in the same pre-Ramadan world, but you are in this altered state. It can get really lonely sometimes, whereas back home, it's a huge community practice where everyone is doing it.”
Ramadan at Bennington
Ammar, who studies mainly Drama and Political Science, has found his faculty members to be accommodating to the physical and mental limitations that come with fasting for the majority of the day. Last year, when he had a nighttime class, his faculty member changed the break time everyday to coincide with sunset, so Ammar could have time to break his fast. And, since the Dining Hall is mandated to close at 7:00 pm due to union regulations, Ammar spoke with other practicing students and the Dining Hall staff to figure out a way to feed practicing students when sunset falls after closing time.
“The solution we figured out—and what we'll be doing this year as well—is that we go at dinner time or at lunchtime and pack a box. Then when the evening comes, we get together, microwave our food somewhere, and then have it. Since the Dining Hall is not open at 3:30 am, we also grab stuff we can put in our house freezer fridge, so when we wake up in the middle of the night, we can have that quickly,” said Ammar.
This year, Ammar has been working with The Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion and with the help of Dr. Alfredo Medina, Jr. and Xiomara Giordano to ensure that the College recognizes and supports the students who are observing Ramadan.
“I feel like the pressure is usually on students to go and advocate for themselves. This year, we are trying to change that,” said Ammar. “I've been working with Xiomara in the Office of DEI. We've been talking to the provost and the dean of faculty to make sure that there is recognition by faculty that there are d students fasting, that they won't have the most energy for the classroom and might need a deadline extension or other accommodations. And if class clashes with students’ fasting time, they should get a good break.”
“Usually faculty members are really nice about that if you approach them, but it's great that now the College is doing that work on our behalf. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to get recognition in the classroom, and lay the groundwork for the future,” said Ammar.
Once Ramadan starts, observing students will be meeting in the East Academic Center each night at sunset to break fast, but everyone is invited to join, practicing or not.
“It will be open to anyone who wants to come at that time and join us in eating food or sharing in conversation. Any company is always welcome,” said Ammar.
Ammar is also working on organizing evening meals with Ramadan observers from the greater Bennington community.
“There are resettled Afghan families that are doing Ramadan for the first time outside their country, which all of us international students relate to. So we’re trying to bring a couple of them onto campus and be able to cook for them and have food from the Dining Hall,” said Ammar.
After 30 days of fasting, Ramadan culminates in Eid, a celebration and feast. Last year, Ammar helped organize an Eid celebration at the End of the World.
“Buildings and Grounds gave us a barbecue grill, and we had a lot of food and we danced. Everyone got together, regardless of whether they knew what Eid was or had celebrated it before,” said Ammar.
Going forward, Ammar hopes the College and campus community will continue to accommodate and validate the experience of students who are observing the holiday.
“During most [past] Ramadan[s], even though we were very exhausted physically, the burden has always been on us to explain to everyone that no, we don't eat and we don’t drink– not even water,” said Ammar. “So I'm glad that we're starting to build a community around this celebration rather than hiding it and being like, ‘I'll deal with this myself.’ It's so great that our community is coming together to support us.”
And while the celebrations here may be smaller than what he’s used to, Ammar still finds great joy in observing these rituals on campus.
“Different doesn't have to mean worse. It's beautiful in its own little way,” said Ammar. “The fact that there's fewer of us can get lonely, but it also brings us all together in a way that wouldn’t happen if everyone was fasting. It has its own little beauties.”