The Islamic holy month of Ramadan will be observed in April this year. It is a period of time when Muslims strive for spiritual purification through fasting, self-sacrifice, and increased prayer. In many Muslim-majority countries, working hours and school days are shortened to allow more time for religious observances and festivities.
However, Muslim students in other parts of the world do not enjoy this luxury and have to make adjustments to accommodate the demands of school life during a period where they abstain from all food and drink—including water—from dawn till sunset, and spend long hours in prayer during the night. While it is a month of spirituality and celebration, Ramadan can be quite exhausting for many people, especially for children and young people in school who observe fasting and increased rituals.
Cultural practices such as Ramadan provide excellent opportunities for schools and educational institutions to respect and embrace differences while building understanding and awareness.
Doing so can help to confront and eliminate barriers of prejudice, misinformation, and bias about specific aspects of students’ individual and cultural identities. Teachers who want to provide all their students with a caring and stimulating environment for learning must consider their backgrounds, cultures, and identities, and make accommodations where necessary to promote effective learning. Here are some suggestions for teachers to consider in supporting Muslim students during Ramadan.
1. Educate Yourself About Ramadan and Why It Is Important to Muslims
Although the obvious focus of the month is abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours, it is important to understand that Ramadan is not about being hungry or thirsty or tired. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time to reflect on themselves, gain self-discipline, and build spirituality.
Though the religious requirements are universal, the way in which the month is celebrated may vary across communities, families, and individuals. If you are unaware of the hows and whys of Ramadan, find a reliable source of information to educate yourself. Take the time to find out about how Muslims observe this month and how your Muslim students celebrate it.
Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, the start and end of the month is determined by sighting the moon. Each lunar month is 29–30 days long, depending on the moon cycle. This means that each year the month of Ramadan moves up 10 days in relation to the Gregorian calendar. Find out when Ramadan is expected to begin and end in your locality, but be aware that the day may change, based on moon sighting.
2. Make Accommodations for Fasting Students
Schools can show sensitivity to fasting students by providing alternate locations during lunchtime so that they can be away from the cafeteria. Students may also want to refrain from rigorous activity in their physical education classes or sports training during Ramadan. Teachers may wish to allow fasting students to participate in alternative activities in order to avoid the possibility of dehydration or hypoglycemia resulting from strenuous exercise.
Muslims pray five times a day, with the timing dependent on the position of the sun in the sky. Prayer becomes even more important during Ramadan, and if the school does not normally have a designated prayer space for students, this is something that students and families would appreciate. If this space is outside of the classroom, you can be proactive by asking ahead when students will need to leave to pray, so that when it is time they can step out quietly and not disrupt the classroom environment.
There may be other accommodations that students may appreciate. If you know that a particular student in your class will be fasting, consider asking them “How can I help you be comfortable during Ramadan?”
3. Show Understanding and Empathy
Ramadan is for an entire month; therefore, a student’s energy will fluctuate over the course of that month. The last 10 days of the month are regarded as being more special, and many families will engage in prayer late into the night. Be prepared for students to be tired or for their concentration to be lower than during the rest of the year. If assignments and tests can be delayed, consider doing this. Allowing students to work at their own pace and showing more understanding will help students to feel that they are cared for. Though it is completely acceptable to eat in front of fasting students, it might be helpful (especially for younger students) if you avoided lessons or class activities that revolved around food, eating, or drinking during this time.
Two common comments from non-Muslims during this period are about fasting without water being detrimental to health and fasting for weight-loss purposes. Apart from potentially being offensive, such comments show lack of understanding about the reason why Muslims fast. Though there is nothing stopping a non-Muslim from fasting in solidarity with their Muslim friends, if a person does not engage in the spiritual element of the ritual, simply abstaining from food and drink would not be regarded by a Muslim as a fasting.
It is also important to recognize that although fasting is an obligation, not every Muslim will fast, for various reasons. For example, younger children may only fast a part of the day, or not at all. It is best to refrain from asking students if they are fasting. This is particularly important when some students may not wish to declare their faith openly.
4. Create Awareness About Ramadan Traditions and Islam
You may like to use the opportunity to educate your class about Ramadan, making relevant curricular connections. Different aspects of Ramadan can be focused on through different curriculum areas. Though links to language arts and social studies seem the most obvious, finding ways to link to other areas of the curriculum can help to strengthen multicultural understanding and avoid tokenism.
Here are a few examples of how you can link content and culture. Students could
- locate Muslim-majority countries on a world map,
- learn about the phases of the moon,
- create Islamic arts and crafts to decorate the class,
- learn about symmetry and geometry in Islamic art,
- or work out the duration of fasting hours in different scenarios.
Though a lot of resources are available through different age-appropriate books and other media, it may also be interesting to have a family member of a Muslim student visit and share cultural knowledge with the class.
A 10-year-old Muslim girl who participated in one of my research studies recently told me that one of the things that she is looking forward to this Ramadan is to share some aspects of her faith and culture with her classmates. Her teacher has already made plans to build the celebration of Ramadan into a unit of study, and has asked her to make a short presentation to the class to explain what a day in Ramadan is like for her family. Integrating one aspect of this girl’s culture into the learning plans of the class has helped her to achieve a sense of belonging to the school in a way she has previously never felt.
What strategies will you use to support Muslim students under your care this Ramadan?