The month of Ramadan is here – and so are the final exams. What is it like to combine student life with a month-long period of fasting, prayer and spirituality? Tilburg University students Salih (22), Nejra (18) and Farzana (26) share their experiences.
The holy month of Ramadan comes at a challenging time this year. The days are long and temperatures are high, making it difficult to abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Students fasting for Ramadan face an additional challenge, as the month-long fasting period coincides with the end of the academic year. While most students are wrapping up their work so they can focus on their well-earned summer break, Muslim students are taking exams on empty stomachs and spending their free time in prayer and contemplation.
“People tend to think that not eating and drinking is the most difficult part, but I don’t agree”
Global Law student Nejra (18) took two exams this week, still having three exams to go. According to Nejra, abstaining from good and drink is not what makes combining study and Ramadan such a challenge. Fulfilling religious tasks that are more time-consuming, such as praying five times a day and reading from the Quran, is much more burdensome for fasting students during the exam period. “People tend to think that not eating and drinking during the day is the most difficult part, but I don’t agree at all”, Nejra says. “Juggling your daily tasks and your religious tasks – and doing all that on an empty stomach – that’s what makes it hard.”
Law student Salih (22) from Birmingham has finished his exams. He will return to the UK in two weeks. In the meantime, he tries to keep a normal routine. That’s not easy, Salih explains, because it can be tempting to stay awake at night and to sleep through the long fasting hours of the day. “You’re supposed to live normally, otherwise you’re cheating yourself”, he says. Although he is still working on going to bed early, Salih does keep up other good habits during Ramadan, such as exercising: “I’m actually going to the gym later today. I just take things a bit more slowly by taking more rest inbetween sets.”
Salih started fasting at the age of twelve. “When I started fasting, Ramadan fell in winter. That was easy. And I didn’t eat much during the day anyway, because I would rather be playing football or something”, he says. “But now, the days are 18 or 19 hours long. It’s a test – both mentally and physically. I love that challenge. It gives me a lot of confidence. I feel like if I can do this, I can do anything. And, honestly, it’s really not that difficult once you get into it. Most of my friends in Tilburg say they think they could never do it. I think they’re underestimating themselves. They’re underestimating the power of the body.”
“It’s a test, both mentally and physically”
But the benefits of Ramadan exceed the physical and mental challenge of fasting, Salih says. “Ramadan gives me a sense of peace”, he explains. “I’ve deleted my Snapchat and my Instagram for this month. Instead, I just read. You take yourself away from everything.”
Nejra says Ramadan helps her stay ‘grounded’. “As a student with a busy social life, I’ve noticed that it can be difficult to practice my faith. Ramadan is a month of self reflection and gratitude, which allows us to re-connect to our faith in a more profound and direct way. It’s also a month of charity. They say that you empty your stomach to feed your soul. I would invite all skeptics to participate in Ramadan, even just for a day. It allows you to relate to people in other parts of the world, who always go without sufficient food and water. It really gives you a whole new outlook on the world.”
For Farzana (26) from Bangladesh, who studies Organization Studies, Ramadan is primarily a period of spiritual cleansing. “For me, it’s a month in which I go through a meditative process to detoxify my mind and my body”, she says. “Avoiding food is not my main goal. It’s also about controlling my greediness and my unpleasant thoughts, and to make myself a better person through that process.”
“If I walk too fast, I see blue spots in front of my eyes”
Farzana is currently finishing her master’s thesis, while working as a recruitment intern four days a week. Her work day starts at eight in the morning. “I’m very tired during the day. I actually overslept this morning, because I was so exhausted”, she says. “And because I can’t drink coffee, I don’t have anything to kick start my day. So I do feel a bit like a zombie in the morning.” Farzana even sees blue spots in front of her eyes sometimes. She laughs: “Right now, that happens whenever I walk too fast. But I know I will feel normal after the first fifteen days. That’s usually how long it takes for my body to adjust.”
When night falls, Muslim families come together to break the day’s fast during ‘iftar’ – which literally translates as ‘breakfast’. But for international students like Salih and Farzana, it’s not possible to share an iftar with their friends and families at the end of the day. “That definitely makes it more difficult”, Farzana says. “Instead of eating with my family, I usually just grab something easy from Albert Heijn on my way home from work, or I get some fries at Burger King. I know that’s not very healthy after a whole day of fasting, but I don’t always have the energy to prepare a meal myself. In the weekends I do try to cook traditional food, because that makes me feel closer to my culture. I really miss the traditional food back home.”
“One of the huge things of Ramadan is family”, Salih says. “It’s probably the most social time of the year for us. The whole family gets together, we have neighbors come over. But because I’m here now, that’s different. I don’t have my friends and family.”
“It’s different now that I don’t have my friends and family here”
Nevertheless, Salih doesn’t eat alone. “Every mosque has an iftar, so I’ve been going to the mosque in Tilburg to eat. Lots of different people go there – local Muslim people, African refugees, but also a homeless Dutch guy who just comes to have a meal. Everyone is welcome to join for iftar, you can just walk in.”
According to Nejra, that’s precisely what Ramadan is about: “Ramadan is about a certain mentality. It’s about optimism and love. That mentality is often a lot more difficult to maintain than abstinence from food and drink.”
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