NEW YORK – The end of Ramadan fell on a Friday this year. Luckily, Laila Hussain had no class on that day and was able to celebrate the holiday with family without having to consult with her professor. But because class assignments were still due, observing Eid al-Fitr meant that she ended up with a significant lack of time to do her work.
Hussain is not the only one in this situation. Despite official policies respecting the religious observance of students in universities across the United States, Muslim students are sometimes hesitant to ask their professors for special consideration.
Whereas most faculty members of universities are well aware of major Christian and Jewish holidays, Islamic celebrations are often unknown. Muslim students usually are a minority in their programs and don’t want to draw attention to themselves. The number of Muslim students is increasing however, as is the number of Muslims in the United States in general, and dealing with Islamic holidays is likely to become more important as this trend continues.
An estimate from a 2007 study by the Pew Forum states that Muslims make up 0.8 percent of the American population. In New York City, that number goes up to almost 8 percent, nycreligion.org says, based on a study of mosques in the city.
How Muslim holidays are dealt with differs per level in the educational system. In the federally funded public schools Muslim students and parents are currently fighting for the right to have time off for religious holidays, while American colleges and universities have had policies in place for some time.
The succinct policies of New York University and Columbia University state that students are allowed to be absent for religious observances if professors are notified in time. Personal arrangements should be made to make up for missed classes or exams.
In practice, students at both schools often do not use these rights. They feel as though their holidays aren’t that special and as if their request is not legitimate, Iman Elhalim says. With Eid al-Fitr, the celebratory end of a month of fasting, for example “it’s just eating and praying together.”
Elhalim, a second year in the graduate education and human development program at NYU, feels that the religious observances are essential for the Islamic faith in the United States. It’s what gives the individual believers a sense of community.
“There’s a lack of creating a sense of importance when it comes to the holidays,” she says. “We should celebrate our holiday. We should instill that idea in our community, in our family, in our kids.”
Taimur Malik, president of the Muslim Students Association at Columbia, explains the difficult position every student celebrating a holiday finds himself in: even though the opportunity to take time off is there, there is still work to do. The heavy workload affects students of all faiths.
“The work piles up. You have to make up the work anyway,” he says.
Overall, Malik is not too worried about Eid in college – students are entering the real world as an adult and cannot expect the world to adjust to their needs. College prepares young adults for a high pressure society, where they will not always be able to celebrate religious holidays easily either.
To fulfill their religious requirements, some students go to the early prayers in the mosque near Columbia and then make it in time for their first class. They study in between prayers and don’t bother to make special arrangements with their professors.
Hussain, a 23-year-old first year graduate student at NYU, didn’t ask for any special consideration.
“Even if I do speak to my professor, what’s the most he is going to do? I would still be behind, work would still be going on without me.”
Hussain’s decision was mostly based on the experiences of her older brother, who studied at NYU before her. “He always said that there was no kind of leeway given; you just have to work harder.”
The issues students face usually do not include problems with professors. Both Malik and Elhalim mention that their professors have been very understanding. Faculty members are accepting of Islamic holidays, and give enough opportunities for students to make up for missed class.
John Beckman, vice president of Public Affairs at NYU, also believes that the University’s policy is working well.
“Faculty tend to be sensitive to students’ religious observances,” he writes in an e-mail, “and my sense is that the vast majority of these matters get worked out smoothly between student and professor.”
The personal discomfort of students with regard to taking time off, however, has not gone unnoticed. An e-mail sent out by provost David McLaughlin to all faculty at NYU at the start of this academic year explicitly mentioned the issue.
“It has come to my attention that notwithstanding the University’s supportive approach to these matters, some students feel uncomfortable alerting their professors to upcoming absence related to religious observance,” the e-mail read. The provost also urged faculty to be aware of the existence of the holidays and students’ feelings.
Malik, Elhalim and Hussain all said that it is most important to get recognition of Muslim holidays in the public school calendar. Universities and colleges have adequate policies in place. There is room for improvement when it comes to knowledge and recognition of Islamic holidays, but mostly the system works well.
At the college level, Malik has observed that students are able to combine their academic responsibilities with their religious observance. How they choose to do this is ultimately their own decision.
High school students are often not able to make their own choices when it comes to observing religious holidays, yet the meaning and symbolism of religious holidays are especially important during these formative years. Communal celebration of religious holidays helps shape their identity as a Muslim and as a young adult.