How many students have spent Eid day dashing to prayers and then dashing to class?
Or, on occasion, not dashing to prayers at all because of an examination or a test?
How about food? How many students living on campus have had to eat boiled pasta and tuna for four years?
Well, two universities, Syracuse in Syracuse, New York, and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have made significant inroads to accommodate Muslims.
A holiday for the whole university at Syracuse
At Syracuse University, Eid al Fitr is now an official university holiday.
The entire university campus shuts down to mark the end of Ramadan, and the 500 Muslim students and staff now have a chance to celebrate Eid for the entire day instead of just an hour.
The effort to establish the holiday was headed by Ahmed Nezar Kobeisy, Imam of the Islamic Society of Central New York, who started campaigning for the day off in 1990. Kobeisy is also a doctoral candidate in sociology.
Kobeisy, who was appointed Imam of the Syracuse Masjid in 1988, has been working with the university as a Muslim chaplain since 1990.
At the same time, he was elected to the university's Chaplains Council, which informs the administration of the needs of various religious groups on campus.
“Since the first meeting, I have been saying that the university was not accommodating the Muslims,” he says.
Kobeisy was asked, along with all other chaplains, to make suggestions to the university's Calendar Committee, which sets the yearly schedule for five years at a time. It was at that time that he requested the university include the two Eids as official holidays in its plan.
The administration said it could definitely not accommodate two holidays, so Muslim students and staff picked Eid al Fitr.
“At this point, the Calendar Committee came to a split decision. Four members did not support an Eid holiday and took the position that not only should Eid not be added but that the two existing religious holidays, Yom Kippur and Good Friday, should be canceled too.
The remaining three members took the position that Eid should be added into the existing holiday schedule,” says Kobeisy.
“The four members who wanted to get rid of all holidays said the university is a secular institution and should not be shutting down for religious reasons. But I pointed out that it already does, because the semesters are arranged around Christmas and Thanksgiving, and Christmas is definitely a religious holiday.
“So what the committee had to vote on was either to do away with all holidays or to add one more. This was actually better for us, because if they just had to vote on whether or not to add Eid, the Muslims would have been in a weaker position,” says Kobeisy.
Since canceling all holidays was a very strong position, the committee had to get input from all the academic staff as well as senior members of the administration, all of whom supported including Eid. The first Eid holiday at Syracuse University was observed in 1995.
Eid holiday may not be permanent at Syracuse
Although it took five years of hard work and dedication, Imam Kobeisy says Eid is not necessarily a permanent part of the university's holiday schedule.
“Every five years there is a new Calendar Committee, so if someone else comes along and says they want holidays too, then the whole question of whether to add their holiday or get rid of all holidays can come up again. There is a possibility we could lose our Eid.
“It has actually already happened. After we got Eid day off, the Hindu students got very upset and made a lot of noise that they should get a holiday as well. But the university said it couldn't accommodate them because there isn't enough room in the school year.”
Muslims must speak up
Imam Kobeisy says that Muslims need to be more outspoken about their needs at the university level.
He says that Muslims at Syracuse have the benefits they do because they asked for them.
“I feel that, basically, if you don't ask for anything, then how is anyone going to know what you want?”
Universities go Halal
Syracuse and Harvard universities have gone Halal.
Now, Muslims students at the two universities will be able to eat what they want, when they want it, and can finally get away from the monotony of tuna every day.
How they did it
At Syracuse, the process for getting Halal meat was much the same as getting the Eid holiday established.
Ahmed Nezar Kobeisy had requested the university, through his position on the Chaplains Council, to provide Halal meat to Muslim students.
“I told them not having Halal meat available at the university for staff and students was like inviting someone over to your house but having nothing for them to eat.
“When I first mentioned the issue of Halal meat, the people in the administration said to me, ‘Why do you have to have Halal meat? If we come to visit you in Egypt (from where Kobeisy originally comes) would you serve us pork?'
So I said to them, ‘No, I won't. I will give you something that you can eat but that I can eat also. I will give you seafood and beef and lamb, because you can eat it and so can I.' I asked them if they had any objection to eating Halal meat, and they said no. So, I said, ‘What's the problem?'”
The problem, it turns out, was basically economic. The Muslim meat supplier who was approached to provide the meat was overcharging the university.
The prices he gave were so high that Halal meat was turning out to be more expensive than Kosher. Kobeisy says that anyone who has compared the prices of Halal and Kosher meat knows that Kosher is far more expensive.
Kobeisy approached another supplier, who gave a better price and agreed to supply the meat. However, it turned out that he did not have the requisite insurance. The deal had to be scrapped.
Eventually, the university, with help from the Muslim community, was able to find a suitable source.
“The proposal to serve Halal meat was approved by the university in 1994, but there was a two-semester delay because of the unreliability of the suppliers, and a further one-semester delay because of a change in staff in the dining services department,” says Kobeisy.
The program finally began at the start of 1996, and the university has hired a Muslim to supervise it. Halal meat is offered in one dining hall (students can eat in any dining hall they choose) and is served only on demand.
Halal meat for Harvard students
At Harvard University, unlike Syracuse, the Halal meat program was initiated by the students.
The precursor to the students asking for Halal meat was the establishment of the Ramadan Meal Program, which was first run in 1991.
The goal was to get refunds for Muslim students during Ramadan for uneaten meals as well as to get special concessions for Suhoor and Iftar.
The meal program at Harvard works on a total payment system. Students pay at the beginning of the year for all their meals, and then it is pretty much all you can eat.
If you skip meals, as in the case of Muslim students during Ramadan, then you have lost money because you have already paid for the missed meal.
Also, because Suhoor and Iftar do not coincide with regular meal times, students had to pick up their dinner and save it until Iftar.
This did didn't always make for an appetizing meal.
For Suhoor, students either had to get food the night before from the dining hall or purchase it, which would obviously be an additional cost.
Sarwar Khobaib, past vice-president of the Islamic Society of Harvard, approached the Director of Dining Services in 1990.
Sarwar says the the Muslims students were able to establish a good relationship with the director, and that was the main reason why this program got the go-ahead.
Efforts had been made in previous years to get refunds, but officials at the university had not been very cooperative.
“Out of the 40 or 50 Muslim students at the university that year, 15 participated in the Ramadan Meal Program. It was quite successful. That year, Maghrib time coincided with dinner time, so we were able to eat in the dining hall. They provided us with boxed meals for Suhoor, and we could get whatever we wanted.
“For our refund we got back about 30 percent of our money, because the other 70 percent goes toward the general meal program's labor costs. Just because we're not eating doesn't mean food isn't being prepared and served,” says Sarwar.
The Ramadan Meal Program is now a natural extension of the dining services program at the university.
In the fall of 1995, freshman Irfan Siddiqui approached the Islamic Society of Harvard with a proposal to establish a Halal meat program.
Once again, the Director of Dining Services who had helped establish the Ramadan Meal Program helped facilitate the implementation for the Halal meat program.
According to Sarwar, it costs the university more per head to feed its Jewish and Muslim students, but because of the total payment system on which the meal program is based, the cost for the university evens out in the end.
Halal meat is served in two dining halls (students can eat in any hall they wish), and the meat is available only on demand.
Naheed Mustafa, a graduate in journalism, is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
This article was originally published in the July/August 1996 issue of Islamic Horizons magazine under the title “Universities Recognize Muslim Students”. It has been republished with permission.