The Muslim students at Robert E. Lee High School in this suburban Virginia community haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day, but when they meet after school for a club meeting, the room still buzzes with energy, laughter, and chatter. It’s the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, an uplifting time these students say encourages them to improve themselves.
About 15 students, members of the school’s Muslim Student Association, discuss Ramadan and plan activities with the club’s supervisor, chemistry teacher Mariam Osman. As some drift in and out of the room, the talk shifts from Ramadan concerns to participation in a regional Islamic quiz competition.
Like other Muslims observing Ramadan this month across the country and around the world, the students here attest to the personal benefits they gain from fasting. But they also agree that just practicing their faith in the public school environment—where they’re often pulled in directions opposite to what Islam teaches—can be a battle of wills.
During Ramadan, which lasts 29 or 30 days, depending on the lunar calendar, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, abstaining from eating, drinking, and marital relations. The holy days are not just a physical exercise in self-control and willpower, but a spiritual one, as Muslims strive to improve their character and become stronger believers.
When school administrators acknowledge students’ needs and accommodate them, it makes it easier to practice a religion that many other Americans find unfamiliar, students say.
Muslim activists agree that U.S. school systems’ awareness and understanding of the religion are growing. This year, the news media are paying heightened attention to the start of Ramadan, largely because public interest in Islam jumped after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and because the United States faces the prospect of war with Iraq, a Muslim country.
An estimated 6 million to 7 million Muslims live in the United States, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.
“The fact that Muslims are here in large numbers requires a learning curve for American institutions,” said Ihsan Bagby, a University of Kentucky professor of Islamic studies who conducts research on Islam in America. “I think the schools are more open to understanding other cultures. That is, after all, one of the purposes of education.
“Therefore,” he said, schools “have been fairly quick to find accommodation.”
Learning to Adapt
Education organizations such as the National School Boards Association, public-interest Islamic groups, and civil liberties organizations all make recommendations on how to accommodate different religious groups in public schools. But decisions on what to allow and what not to allow largely depend on local school districts and individual schools.
And sometimes, it takes some prompting to institute change.
It helps that the number of Muslim elementary and secondary students born in the United States is increasing, said Sharifa Alkhateeb, the president of the Muslim Education Council. The Great Falls, Va.-based organization, which serves Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia educates the Muslim community about how school systems work and helps educators become more aware of Islam.
"[Those students’] requests for accommodation have met with more acceptance when, one, they don’t have an accent, and also because [schools] see them as part of the fabric of American society,” Ms. Alkhateeb said.
Most of her work focuses on the about 166,000-student Fairfax County district, which includes Robert E. Lee High. Ms. Alkhateeb conservatively estimates that Muslim students constitute about 6 percent of the enrollment in the district.
The council has lobbied the schools to identify which cafeteria foods contain pork, which Muslims are forbidden to eat, and to let students conduct their faith’s Friday prayer, which must be performed as a group, on school grounds.
At the beginning of each Ramadan, the district informs physical education teachers that students are fasting and advises giving them assignments to take the place of such exercises as running the mile. In most Fairfax County schools, Muslim students are allowed to go to another room, such as the library, during lunchtime.
And for nearly the past 10 years, the school system has marked days taken off for Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, as excused absences.
Around Lee High’s blue-and-yellow-tiled halls, Muslim Student Association fliers proclaiming “Ramadan at Lee” are strategically placed near certain classrooms and on the library doors.
Students get a separate classroom to sit in during lunchtime, notes Ms. Osman, the Muslim Student Association’s supervisor. Gym teachers are also advised that students will be fasting. On the first day of Ramadan, Ms. Osman said, the principal read a statement marking the beginning of the religious month during morning announcements.
Members of the student association, who planned to hold a Ramadan dinner at the school last week, say they’re satisfied with the attitudes of both the administration and their classmates toward the holy days.
During a recent meeting of the group, Ms. Osman asks how they feel when they see their classmates snacking in the halls.
“I can sit there [in the cafeteria] and look at french fries and not be tempted to eat,” remarks Saba Ghorab, a 15-year-old freshman.
Has anyone taken a drink of water by mistake? asks club President Sarkan Kurdee, a senior. “I did,” he admits.
But then comes the ultimate question: “Is [fasting] just about physical relations and food, that’s all?” Ms. Osman asks.
No, says 17-year- old Sabrina Aman. It’s more about having a clean heart, and getting closer to God.
When she fasts, she keeps herself in check, Ms. Aman says. And when her friends start complaining about their teachers or peers, she says to herself, “Ana sa’imah,” Arabic for “I am fasting,” and leaves the conversation.
Students elsewhere have faced bigger roadblocks to practicing their faith.
At Brookhaven High School in Columbus, Ohio, students staged a walkout this month because they said they weren’t being allowed to pray on time. While Muslims are required under Islam to observe all prayers year-round, many Muslims put more emphasis on the mandate during Ramadan.
Students at the 1,050-student school, which has about 60 Muslim students, are allowed to pray, as long as they don’t “interrupt the education of themselves or other students,” said Andrew Marcelain, a spokesman for the 63,600-student Columbus district. That means performing the midday prayer during lunchtime or free periods.
In Maryland, some Muslim parents complained about statewide standardized tests scheduled for Dec. 5, the same day that Eid may fall on. This year, the holiday will be on either Dec. 5 or Dec. 6, depending on the lunar calendar.
“If it’s Eid day, how can they do that?” said Samira Hussein, a Gaithersburg, Md., resident whose 8th grade son is required to take the two-day writing test on Dec. 4 and 5.
“I want him to enjoy his holiday,” said Ms. Hussein, a community activist who works for the Montgomery County school system, which includes Gaithersburg. “This is sending a confusing message to our children: whether to pick religion or pick their education.”
Even if Dec. 6 turns out to be Eid day, she said, “they would not test anybody on the day before Christmas, would they?”
The state scheduled the test after consulting a calendar provided by a U.S.-based Islamic organization, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland state education department.
“We will definitely make sure we have an extra day in there next year,” he said. “But for right now, we can’t really change the date statewide” because of the high cost.
There is a makeup date for the test, Mr. Reinhard noted. But Ms. Hussein said she does not want her son to miss more class time by taking the test another day.
A Source of Pride
Uzma Khan, a 17-year-old senior at Massey Hill Classical High School in Fort Bragg, N.C., says that her school makes accommodations for Muslim students during Ramadan. The bigger problem, she says, is struggling in an environment that’s not always friendly toward Muslims.
Ms. Khan remembers an incident from 7th grade, during Ramadan, when a group of boys asked her what her favorite food was. She replied, “Popcorn.” The next day, the boys brought popcorn to school to taunt her. “It was really crazy,” she said.
For Athar Abdul-Quader, a 16-year-old junior at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, N.Y., the hardest part about fasting in public school is answering the barrage of questions from classmates about why he’s doing so.
“I have to do it pretty much every day,” he said of responding to such queries. But at the same time, it’s positive, he said, because “you get to tell people about the religion.”
Here in Virginia, Muslim students at Robert E. Lee High agree that practicing their religion in general, let alone during a time of fasting, is a constant struggle in a public school.
But it’s also a source of pride, said Ms. Aman. “I’m doing it for God—I’m doing it because I have to,” she tells her non-Muslim friends.
During Ramadan, Ms. Aman said, “I care about my religion more. I feel really blessed to be a Muslim.”
Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Schools Adapting to Muslim Holy Month