Ramadan at Amherst: Close Community, Unique Challenges

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan began on April 1, opening 30 days of fasting, prayers, and close community for Muslim students. Students expressed appreciation for the opportunity to come together in religious reflection but cited ways the college can improve their experience.

Ramadan at Amherst: Close Community, Unique Challenges
Members of Amherst’s Muslim Students Association break the fast together with a nightly meal called Iftar. Photo courtesy of Ziji Zhou ’25.

A waxing crescent moon rose over the North American continent on the night of April 1, beginning the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in the United States. For Muslim students at the college and almost two billion Muslims worldwide, it marked the beginning of a 30-day period of daily fasting, close community, and increased piety.

Though members of Amherst’s Muslim community described experiencing difficulties keeping up with the demands of college life while forgoing food and water throughout the day and shifting their sleep schedules for early morning prayers and pre-dawn meals, they expressed appreciation for the ability to recenter their religious lives and become closer together as a community. Students also indicated that the college can still do some small things — from the classroom to the dining hall — to make observing Ramadan easier for them.

Ramadan holds special importance for Muslims as the month in which their holy book’s scripture was passed down to a string of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and, most importantly, the Prophet Muhammad.

Laylat al-Qadr, which falls on one of the odd-numbered nights on the last 10 days of the month, marks the night in which the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad, and is considered the holiest night of the year. On the night of Qadr, many Muslims will pray all night long.

Laith Bahlouli ’25 said that, for Muslims, “if you pray during that night [Laylat al-Qadr], it’s better than you praying for thousands and thousands of nights.” Because the exact date of Laylat al-Qadr is not known to Muslims, “every one of those days — 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, 29th — you will see everyone praying all night,” said Bahlouli.

During Ramadan, all Muslims who have reached puberty are expected to abstain from food and water while the sun is up, give to charity, and pay increased attention to their spiritual lives, in general. Many Muslims are more observant during the holy month; for instance, many students at Amherst will participate in the Taraweeh nighttime prayer, held in Lewis Sebring Commons from around 9 to 10:30 p.m. each night, only during Ramadan.

The end of the month of fasting is marked by prayers, large-scale celebrations, and traditional dishes on the holiday known as Eid al-Fitr.

Muslim students at Amherst describe the holiday as deeply meaningful, a time of deep reflection and closeness to God and a reminder of what is important. Mohammed Alausa ’24 said that, in enduring the discomfort of hunger and thirst, he “remembers that everything is for God, not just for me as a person.”

Beyond the direct religious significance of the month, a number of students noted the increased gratefulness instilled by the experience of fasting. “I think the main thing is it gives you humility,” said Bahlouli. “It puts you in a state that you have to be thankful that you have food every day.”

Alausa said that the experience of fasting reminds him that “a lot of people in the world are less fortunate.” For 29 days, he chooses to be hungry; many other people in the world have no such choice. “It makes me want to be more generous with my time and donations and stuff like that,” he said.

Additionally, one of the main things that Muslims at Amherst appreciate about the holy month is the sense of community it cultivates. “Ramadan at Amherst is fire,” said Bahlouli.

Between the crescent moons, Amherst’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) is one the closest communities on Amherst’s campus. Members of MSA — who range in experience from those who, according to Alausa, “just come for vibes,” to recent converts, to life-long, extremely observant Muslims — eat almost every meal together. Each night and early morning, the community comes together, breaks their fast, and takes turns leading prayers. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, students carpool to Hampshire Mosque for prayers.

Kobe Thompson ’24 — who officially converted to Islam on the first night of Ramadan this year — described the tight bonds formed by mutual sacrifice. “Every time that I feel very hungry, thirsty, or tired, my mind wanders to my Muslim friends, my Muslim siblings,” he said. “They’re doing the same thing I’m doing,” he said. “If they can do it, I can do it.”

Having converted while at Amherst, Thompson described the special connection he has with the college’s Muslim community: “By being present at my Shahada [conversion], they have to do good on themselves because they have witnessed my conversion into Islam.”

MSA’s close community, and the religious experiences the members share, allow students to form close relationships. Alausa, who also plays on the men’s basketball team, said that he was “closer with some MSA people than I am with my teammates.” He described “the sensitive, vulnerable time we spend together.” At MSA, “you’re talking about things that you just wouldn’t talk to regular friends or teammates or coaches about.”

Despite the personal meaning and communal bonds forged during the holy months, it is by its nature a difficult time. As Thompson points out: “Would it really be as important if we didn’t have to struggle through it?”

The difficulty is only compounded, though, when the physical toll of fasting and lack of sleep is combined with the busy schedule of an Amherst student. It is already hard enough for many students to get out of bed, but when eight food- and drink-less hours beckon, it can be even harder.

The holy month forces many Muslims students to change their work habits. Bahlouli said that many students will wake up at 4 a.m. to pray and eat before sunrise, and stay up working on assignments until classes begin. When class time does roll around, it is harder than normal to be fully present in Amherst’s discussion-based classroom environment.

“There will be times where I don’t necessarily have the energy to get to class on time,” said Thompson.

For Alausa, the problem is more with staying focused in class. “My majors [economics and math] are really course intensive,” he said. “In class, you have to lock in or you’re going to fall behind.” Because he usually relies on drinking water — and, of course, the energy provided by regular meals throughout the day — to stay awake in class, staying focused during Ramadan is more of a challenge.

That said, the holy month has some silver linings for Alausa workload-wise. He usually has a busy social calendar, but during Ramadan, he prefers to stay in. He said that, “During weekends, I like to stay in a state of spiritual reflection, so I have more time to do work.”

On the whole, however, the holy month comes with dilemmas that many students don’t often have to consider. When prayer schedules and due dates conflict, Muslim students can be faced with a difficult choice. As Thompson put it: “You don't want to compromise your spirituality for your academics, but you also don’t want to compromise your academics for your spirituality.”

Alausa proposed a small change the administration could implement to ensure that Muslim students never have to choose between piety and academic sucess. Alausa and Thompson said that, though they know that their professors would be understanding if they asked for extensions on assignments and explained why they were less active in class during Ramadan, it can often be emotionally draining and time-consuming to have to self-advocate.

To make things easier for Muslim students, Alausa suggested that, ahead of the month, professors should be notified that they have Muslim students in their classes and informed about the demands of observance. Thus, professors could proactively reach out about relaxing deadlines and expectations, taking the onus off of Muslim students themselves. Even if students do not need the academic help, it goes a long way, Alausa said, when professors “make it known to the students that they know that they’re practicing Ramadan, acknowledge how difficult it would be, and let them know that they’re a resource for them.”

Alausa’s suggestion was informed by an experience in office hours earlier in the month. He let his professor know what he was going through and she “broke down.” She told him that she “respected [him] for it and was there to help [him].” That little bit of acknowledgment went a long way: “That meant the world to me,” he said.

Outside the classroom, Muslims students cited the available options at Val as the biggest challenge they face during the holy month. Though Dining Services has provided them a special pantry in the Lewis wing and special early-morning key-card access, it is stocked mostly with snacks, not full meals. Thus, when the community breaks its fast with Iftar each night, they rely on the general-purpose Val menu.

The problem is that Val’s limited options often do not work for Muslim students, who have to stick to a Halal diet. Bahlouli estimates that “maybe four out of seven nights a week, one of the entrees will have pork and one will have alcohol” — both ingredients prohibited by Islam. This is a problem for Muslims year-round, but especially so when they are running on one to two meals a day.

Alausa said that there have been nights when, frustrated by the options at Val, he had to opt for a meal in town. “I can’t lie, there have been nights where I had to call my parents to send me money so I can go out and try to get a proper meal for the one meal of the day,” he said. He said that, for this reason, Ramadan can be an even greater challenge for “someone whose parents aren’t in a good enough socio-economic standing to be able to spare money for [the] days of [Ramadan].”

Last Wednesday, April 13, Alausa and a few other MSA leaders had a conversation with Dining Services in hopes of resolving the problem. “They were very responsive,” he said. “They felt terrible.”

Some changes have already been made. The pantry in Lewis has been stocked with leftovers from previous Val meals, which Alausa says has helped.

The issues Muslim students have faced so far this month are indicative of a larger problem for the Amherst community: the difficulty of feeding more than 2,000 staff, students, and faculty — with different religious backgrounds, dietary restrictions, and personal tastes — in one dining hall.

Though future Ramadans could be made easier for Amherst’s Islamic community, Muslim students made it clear that celebrating the holy month at Amherst is, on the whole, an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Alausa was concerned when he first came to Amherst that celebrating Ramadan away from his family and Muslim community at home might feel isolating. He was quickly reassured. “The community is so accepting,” he said, “that I feel like I’m at home. It’s like a newfound family on campus.”

The most demanding phase of the holiday begins this week. Bahlouli said that, on the night of Friday, April 22, most MSA members will be spending all night at Hampshire Mosque in observance of Laylat al-Qadr; they will do the same every other night for the next eight days, before one last day of fasting.

After a difficult but meaningful month, Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, will come on Monday, May 2. The community plans to go all-out with a day of celebration, as the new moon rises on the other side of the globe.