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The challenge of Ramadan this year for the Muslim chaplain at Williams College

A view of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., surrounded by the Berkshire mountains. File photo from 2009.
Williams College
Creative Commons / flickr..com / photos / williamscollege
A view of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., surrounded by the Berkshire mountains. File photo from 2009.

It's the second week of Ramadan — and also the second year on the campus of Williams College for the school's Muslim chaplain, Sidra Mahmood.

The holiday this year comes at a time of great challenge for many students reflecting on the war in Gaza. She said that has also brought with it a renewed sense of community.

This is the 27th Ramadan that she has fasted, Mahmood said.

Sidra Mahmood, Williams College: I grew up in Pakistan and kids started doing it really early, like from [age] six onwards. Sometimes, like they'll do, we call it "half-day fast." And then, as you get older, you kind of start increasing that time and then you do it all the way until sunset.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: What is gathering for food in the evening feel like at Williams? Do students break that fast together?

Yeah, they do. And actually, I like to use the word deliver the fast, because breaking the fast means like, "Oh, I'm just like breaking. I'm getting rid of it." But, you know, delivering it and presenting it to God, that, "Here I am. This is this is my service to you."

They do gather, and I think a lot of them find meaning in that, because it's a semblance of home for them. One of the students who said that very publicly during orientation — to many other students — [said], "I am not very practicing, but I attend the Ramadan gatherings because it reminds me of home."

Another student who has been very privately practicing and had been fasting all by themselves — without their family fasting, because they're not that practicing — said this is the very first time that they're having Ramadan in a community.

And I looked around and I said [to myself], "Oh my goodness! There are only like maybe 35, 40 people!" And it seems a lot to this person, but I can't imagine if they were in a bigger school or like in a bigger community where there are hundreds of people, how that would make them feel.

And so, it was just very eye-opening that something that I have witnessed and lived in many places and seen very, very big gatherings [at Ramadan], that this seemed big to people, and that this reminded them of home.

When students who don't indicate on college enrollment paperwork that they will be practicing Islam, but then do join — was that omission done out of fear?

I think that they're still actualizing and recognizing their identity — and some out of fear, too. I think college is such a time of discovery for young adults that sometimes, even if they list themselves agnostic, but Islam is their secondary or tertiary identity, then depending on who their friends are, what's going on within their hearts. Especially the war in Gaza has been a catalyst for many looking deeper. Because they have to now wrestle with these very big questions, right? Like, why is this happening? Why is this suffering in the world? Where is God in this?

Is it challenging being the Berkshires, more than 5,500 miles away from Gaza, with a war ongoing, and does that affect your ability to practice your faith and live in accordance with Islamic teachings? Is that at all threatened?

It is indeed very, very hard. Especially with Ramadan, when we are depriving ourselves from food, water, sexual relations — just sustenance in general — by choice, those of us who are choosing to fast. And then recognizing that there are people in Gaza right now who do not have that choice.

And especially as a mother — I am nursing my toddler. Just last night, I had pizza with the students, which wasn't very nutritious. This morning, how tired I was feeling, and that impacts my milk production and everything. But then remembering the mothers in Gaza, the newborns in Gaza. So I think personally it's been — as a mother and as a parent — has ben really, really, really difficult.

I had a student who said, "I just can't believe that I just came back from a chemistry lab." And the fact that our life is continuing and, you know, other people's lives are ending, it's just very, very hard to navigate.

And in the Berkshires especially, especially without having a mosque — we do have a mosque in Pittsfield, but it's not like a main, major center — without having the safety and security of a Muslim community, which can be a voice, which can say, "Well, we're speaking on behalf of our community," it is harder because you don't have that support outside of the college.

When you lack a support like that, for many people, they look more deeply into their religion to see if there is additional guidance and support that can be found there. Does the Quran provide any teachings on war or how to endure Ramadan in a time of war?

It’s funny that you asked that, because I have just published an op-ed, where, in the pits of despair, as I was searching, I did write about the time when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) conquered Mecca and the treaty that he had with the opposing tribe — so to speak, because they were the ones who had kicked him out of their homeland — that treaty was violated when an allied force attacked another group.

And so, the treaty meant that now that your ally had been attacked, you had to stand up for justice. But when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) entered Mecca in Ramadan, he entered with this immense humility that's described in the Quran, regarding children of Israel, who were commanded to enter Jerusalem, prostrating and saying that, "We are seeking your forgiveness." So he entered Mecca and said that anybody who sought safety in their homes is going to be safe.

I really sought comfort in that story, especially because it is something where Muhammad (peace be upon him) chose peace over war. And so, just believing that, I'm praying that the leaders of our world, especially men — I wouldn't say women [as] there are men who are causing this bloodshed — they're guided to just choose peace over war.

Are there additional challenges for you as a female Muslim chaplain and what keeps you at Williams?

What is wonderful about, at least, the Williams [College] Muslim community is that, for lack of better terminology, I always use the word "loosey goosey" — like [in] a funny way. But it’s wonderful to be in this space where people aren't very rigid about what they consider to be Islam.

They're not gatekeepers. And I feel like, in that sense, it is very humbling to be part of this community where — despite me being a woman — people still look up to me.

I think the challenge is with the students in some forms where, because in our tradition, the title is not just ordained to someone. I am a Muslim scholar, but the community is the one that gives a title to someone. They will call someone a shaykhah, which means a female scholar.

All of my male colleagues who graduated from the seminary are called imams. But for women, I think they have to work like sometimes 20, 25 years to earn that from their community.

So I think in that sense there is, for the students, like, "Oh, does she know the intricacies of Islamic law?" Like, of course I do. But it's hard for them to comprehend that unless I teach or I share with them a learning.

What keeps me at Williams is, I guess, the people who are really warm. It is hard being in Williamstown. I won't say that there are times when ... the thought of just not being here does not cross my mind. It does. And especially, recognizing that if I were single, it would be a very different thing.

But the fact that I have a young person that I'm raising — who are going to be his role models? Who are going to be his big brothers and big sisters? Is he going to be seeing other brown Muslim kids in his school? And if not, this is a concern. We think about it a lot, of what it means to raise our kid here in Williamstown.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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