USC students celebrate Ramadan as semester ends and pandemic continues

Students suggested ways for fellow Muslims to celebrate the month-long holiday during a time of isolation and academic stress.

Photo of the inside of the USC Muslim Prayer Room

As Ramadan celebrations reach their halfway point, USC students reflected on how their experiences this year differ from past holidays. This is the second year that the pandemic has made the month-long event go virtual, forcing many families to gather over Zoom rather than in person.

“Before the pandemic [my family and I] would completely decorate our whole house, it’s like Christmas,” says Rahma Radwan, a junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies and political pcience. “The first night we’d have a big dinner party with all of our family friends… my mom would over-cook, and we’d be eating leftovers for days.”

This year, Muslim communities are adjusting how they observe the traditional holiday in order to celebrate safely.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a holiday observed by Muslims all around the world. It is celebrated from the first sighting of a crescent moon after the Islamic month of Sha’ban until it is visible again at the end of the month of Ramadan. This year, the holiday runs from April 12 to May 12, and will end with the holiday of Eid al-Fitr on the last day of Ramadan. Celebrations include fasting from any liquid or food, which takes place throughout the day as long as the sun is out, beginning at dawn and ending at sunset.

Some students have found the absence of big social gatherings to be helpful when reflecting on their personal ties to Islam. Shamillah Iga, a junior majoring in international relations, said she has found the change positive.

“I think it’s been interesting and good to a certain degree because removing the social aspect forces you to really lean into the religious [aspect],” Iga said. “During Ramadan, my ‘me time,’ as in when I’m not working on school or work stuff, coincides with the religious aspects.”

Beyond her own personal studies, Iga is currently enrolled in Introduction to Islam, taught by Dr. Sherman Jackson, and has found her classwork to be helpful in upping her engagement with the holiday.

“[The class] has been helping me connect with the history behind religion,” Iga said. “Taking it during Ramadan has made me think differently and engage more with the readings on a deeper level than I probably would have otherwise.”

That’s not to say that students have easily balanced school with celebration. This is the second year in a row that Ramadan is partially taking place during the academic semester, which complicates things for students who are trying to balance their religious practices with their academic ones.

“It’s a huge point in my family that all the kids are home on the first day,” said Radwan.

Though she’s currently living in an apartment off campus, she grew up in Orange County, and was able to make it home for the first few days of Ramadan before returning to Los Angeles.

“My mom wants me to come home and I have to tell her I can’t, because I’m so busy with finals,” Radwan said. “It just doesn’t feel like Ramadan.”

According to the USC Office for Religious Life, there are upwards of 1,000 Muslim students on campus, making observance of the holiday a significant part of the USC community.

“It’s tough being a Muslim American in the sense that we don’t have our holidays off,” said Radwan, noting that she often relies on accommodating professors so she can balance assignments, finals and religious celebrations.

Despite this, both Radwan and Iga have been able to ground themselves through acts of service. Iga is the president of Ansar Service Partnership, a USC Muslim community service organization.

“I love service, but because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to do that as much as I usually do,” Iga said. “Once Ramadan started, I really wanted to reignite that for myself. There’s something about helping other people that makes the world seem not as bad.”

Radwan echoed this, saying she tries “to practice Zakat,” a form of charity specific to the month of Ramadan.

For fellow Muslim students struggling to celebrate Ramadan at this time, Iga suggested forging connections.

“To my fellow students, I would definitely recommend reaching out to their friends and family, even if they’re not with their family right now, and reaching out to their fellow Muslims,” Iga said. “Even their non-Muslim friends -- engaging with other people really makes the difference in the holiday, and helps to fill those gaps we might be feeling when we’re isolated.”