Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Muslim Student Association Talks Ramadan, Community, and Its Goals for Support

The observance of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar calendar, is a religious tradition followed by Muslims worldwide. For those unfamiliar with the holy month, which began on April 12 and ended on May 12 this year, Umair Azhar, one of the six rising second-year M.D. students who make up Einstein’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) board, explained: “It’s a time of spiritual growth when you think about others and when you put effort toward trying to be a better Muslim and a better person.”

Einstein Muslim Student Association board members
Einstein Muslim Student Association board members
Left to right: Huda Yousuf, Umair Azhar, Azizou Salami, Mustufa Babar, Aladdin Bhuiyan, Onjona Hossain

Umair joined fellow members of Einstein’s MSA for a Zoom conversation that covered topics ranging from what Ramadan means to them and the MSA’s vital role at Einstein to how the school can support the group.

Celebrating Ramadan

Fasting from sunrise to sunset to practice spiritual discipline is a crucial element of the holy month. “You have to challenge yourself spiritually and also physically,” said Azizou Salami. He continued, “It’s not that easy, so you have to transcend all of those desires and spend some time with yourself and with your God to help yourself spiritually.”

Einstein Muslim Student Association members
Einstein’s MSA
Top, left to right: Mustufa Babar, Aladdin Bhuiyan, Umair Azhar
Bottom, left to right: Onjona Hossain, Azizou Salami, Huda Yousuf

Part of the reason for fasting is to teach yourself empathy and humility,” said Aladdin Bhuiyan, who cherishes the daily post-fast routine. “At the end of the day, we prepare a meal together as a family. We all sit together and converse. It’s a great bonding opportunity.”

Mustufa Babar explained, “For me, it’s a time to change any bad habits that I may have. It’s like my New Year’s resolutions for the month. The goal is to carry on the good habits and to continue building on them after the month ends.”

Eid al-Fitr (the “festival of breaking the fast”) is the holiday that follows Ramadan’s monthlong celebration of devotion to God. The students shared their experiences of giving to charity, praying, and eating lots of food together with their families and communities during Eid.

Einstein students breaking the fast together during Ramadan
Einstein students breaking the fast together during Ramadan

Azizou, who grew up in the Republic of Benin, recalled his first memory of Eid. “I was in a religious school and people were playing drums while children celebrated with candy. As an act of charity, community members gave the children gifts of money, which some of the children then offered to their parents.”

Ramadan is also a time to strengthen ties to the community. “If it weren’t for COVID-19, many Muslims would have attended the mosque for night prayers, which last about two to three hours,” said Huda Yousuf, who also appreciates the holy month’s focus on generosity. “Toward the end of Ramadan, community members spend a lot more time in their mosques, and there’s also a big emphasis on giving to charity.”

Aladdin agreed that the month is another opportunity to ground yourself, to remind yourself of your roots, and to think about others in the world.

“There is a sense of camaraderie with the people whom you’ve spent Ramadan with after persevering through some of the month’s challenges,” added Umair.

Building Community at Einstein

That sense of community is reflected in the Muslim Student Association, and it has enhanced Mustufa’s spiritual life. “Before starting medical school, I wasn’t very religious. I had the core beliefs, but I didn’t practice them,” he said. “Ever since I became part of the MSA, I started taking my religion more seriously. And it was mainly because of the people in this group, who kept me grounded, reminded me of my faith, and invited me to pray with them. I give thanks to these people.”

For Azizou, the MSA was a welcoming presence during an isolating period. “We had been staying away from physical interaction,” he said. “As an introvert, I found it even harder to start making new friends and connections.” The MSA was the first group whose members he could easily reach out and relate to.

Umair sees the MSA as a refuge of sorts as well. He said, “People understand how you grew up and where you come from. You don’t have to explain why you’re praying. You don’t have to explain why you’re fasting. I don’t mind doing any of that, but when someone understands, it’s comforting.”

For Onjona Hossain, too, the MSA offers a space where she can feel comfortable. “I can relate to other members on a spiritual level and culturally. Even though we’re very diverse, we still have that common ground.”

Einstein students breaking the fast together during Ramadan
Einstein students praying together during Ramadan

The MSA’s objective now is to expand the group’s presence on campus. Huda explained, “Sometimes I talk to classmates and they don’t know we have an MSA.”

The group has also reached out to non-Muslims about the MSA’s goal of establishing widespread connections with other Einstein community members. It hosted an event this year to break the fast and pray with Einstein community members during the month of Ramadan.

“The school can support Muslim students by offering accommodations or by not having classes on our religious holidays,” noted Huda.

“Eid is like our Christmas or New Year,” added Azizou.