Observing Ramadan: Holy Month for U.Va.'s Muslim Students and Faculty

Oct. 5, 2006 -- Timothy Gianotti grew up in an observant Catholic family in Portland, Ore., and as a child, often visited Catholic monasteries where he admired the lifestyle of the monks. He remembers watching them structure their lives around worship and halting their daily activities to pray at the chapel several times a day.

“I was quite religious as a boy,” Gianotti said. “I used to enjoy very much going to monasteries for weekend retreats or for periods of reflection.”

As a 17-year-old on a school-sponsored trip to Cairo, Egypt, Gianotti observed the same pattern of lives structured around prayer, but on a grander scale. There, during the holy month of Ramadan, he saw so many people praying and fasting that the mosques overflowed.

“I thought to myself, this is just like the monastery, but for everybody,” said Gianotti, who converted to Islam and is now an assistant professor of religious studies at U.Va. “It’s such a beautiful way to organize human life, which is not focused around the ego, or your career, or the stuff you have to do, but on a core remembrance of God.”

Gianotti is one of many Muslims at the University of Virginia who observes the holy month of Ramadan. According to some Muslim authorities, Ramadan began at dawn on Sept. 24 and will end at sunset on Oct. 24 with interpretations of moon sightings, which are key to the Muslim lunar calendar).

During the month of Ramadan, observant Muslims refrain from food, drink and sexual relations between dawn and sunset. Fasting is believed to promote introspection and spiritual purification. “You begin to share the concern for those who are poor and downtrodden in society,” said Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of religious studies and an internationally known scholar of Islam who fasts during Ramadan.

The size of the Muslim community at U.Va. is not precisely known, but adherents number at least in the dozens, if not hundreds. U.Va.’s Muslim Student Association has about 60 active members, and Charlottesville’s Islamic Society of Central Virginia includes numerous U.Va. students and faculty among its 200 members. In the United States, estimates of the domestic Muslim population vary widely, but 6 million is a moderate estimate. Worldwide, there are more than 1 billion people who identify themselves as Muslims, predominantly in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Islam is the second-largest world religion after Christianity, which has more than 2 billion adherents.

Isn’t it hard to work and study while fasting?

If anything, fourth-year student Umair Javed feels more productive during Ramadan.

“I find myself having a lot more time to concentrate on schoolwork,” said Javed, the former president of U.Va.’s Muslim Student Association and a College of Arts & Sciences major in political philosophy, policy and law. “You get into a fixed schedule, where you’re fitting in your work around fasting and praying.”

Muslim professors work hard to ensure their personal religious observance does not affect their professional responsibilities.

“As a professor, I can’t let my students’ studies suffer because I’m fasting,” Gianotti said. “I make every effort to be as or more effective during Ramadan as during normal months.”

A number of Muslim students and faculty in the U.Va. Health System find it challenging to participate in Ramadan given the realities of practicing clinical medicine.

Chief head and neck surgey resident Dr. Tamer Ghanem maintains his 12-hour workdays, performing duties in the operating room and clinic.

“The traditional thing to do is to break your fast in a large gathering,” Ghanem said. “Many days I can’t do that. I just get something quick to drink or bring my own food, if we’re working pretty late. Ramadan teaches me patience and self-control.”

But there is an active community that supports Muslims at U.Va. and in Charlottesville.

The Masjid Darul Iman, Charlottesville’s only mosque, run by the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, provides free food for students every night during Ramadan, said Dr. Emaad Abdel-Rahman, chairman of ISCV and associate professor of internal medicine/nephrology at U.Va.

The University’s Muslim Student Association also organizes programs so that “it’s not like you’re by yourself fasting in your room,” Javed said. “It helps people to keep fasting through the month to see so many other students doing it with them.”

The Muslim Student Association’s Ramadan events include a “Fast-a-thon,” a national charity event that encourages non-Muslims to fast for one day. Local businesses donate $1 for each student who fasts and the money is turned over to community service organizations. Javed estimates that last year 400 non-Muslim U.Va. students fasted and raised about $800 for the Emergency Food Bank of Charlottesville. A second annual Fast-a-thon fundraiser was set for Oct. 5 this year.

“Ramadan is a month of actively cultivating character and faith,” Gianotti said. “It is a chance to take a deep breath and try it all over again.”