But first, they must pray.
A prayer cloth is spread out on the floor in the makeshift mosque. The mosque is located behind a door that normally remains locked in the TV lounge. The worshippers begin standing, facing southeast towards Mecca. Hashim Yonis '10 leads the group of four men and two women, chanting in Arabic with a reverent tone. The prayer sounds like a hymn, with a lilting musical quality to it.
Then, moving to their knees, backs straight, Yonis says "Allahu Akbar," which means "God is great," and all move to a prostrated position, still facing southeast. This continues for several minutes. Each person takes individual prayers as well.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar calendar and is the holiest month for Muslims all around the world. Beginning with the advent of the new moon, adult Muslims fast from sunrise until sunset, abstaining from food, drink and sexual activity.
Those are just the physical requirements for fasting; moral obligations include refraining from "lying, malicious gossip, quarreling and trivial nonsense" according to Yusuf Estes of fastramadan.com, a Ramadan information site recommended by Sultan Mirzoyev '08. Ramadan commemorates the month in which the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad by Gabriel.
The physical aspects of Ramadan are trying, especially during the first weeks of school. The hunger associated with fasting for over nine hours can become quite painful, but for Yonis, Mirzoyev, Ahmed Ali '09, Essa Mohamed '09, Sagirah Shahid '11 and Fatima Omar '11, the pain is not without purpose. The pain serves as a reminder to not take for granted what less fortunate members of society endure. In fact, charity plays a significant role in Ramadan, and food is left out in public for the needy during the entire month in Muslim countries.
The physical demands of Ramadan also produce a "God-consciousness" within Muslims, said Mirzoyev. Rather than dwell on how hungry or thirsty one might be, the mind can be turned to Allah to contemplate the reason behind fasting.
Shahid, dressed in a beautiful, elaborate gown which covered all but her face, points out that fasting is about much more than just food: arguing, sexual activity for married couples and other desires must be suppressed so the mind can become more focused on "God-consciousness."
Ramadan is also important spiritually, because that is when Allah is more attuned to hearing the prayers of his followers. It is said that the gates of heaven are open and the gates to hell are closed, leading to pure thoughts and an opportunity for sins to be forgiven by Allah.
It is one thing to perform the necessary rituals and duties of Ramadan when living in a predominantly Muslim country, but it is another thing to do so in the United States. Imagine if Christmas, Easter and Lent were all rolled into one, month-long holiday and hardly anyone around you in daily life knew about it. That's the Ramadan experience for the handful of Muslim students at St. Olaf.
"A lot of people don't know about Islam, much less Ramadan," said Mirzoyev, who grew up in the Republic of Dagestan, a part of Russia on the Caspian Sea. Dagestan's population is 94 percent Muslim.
Since the events of September 11, Islam has been a subject of intense scrutiny in the West. One of the primary ways in which Muslims like Sultan hope to encourage peace between the Western world and the Muslim world is through education. Mirzoyev added that if any student had a question about Islam or Ramadan, he is always happy to explain.
Though the number of Muslim students on campus may be small, the energy and sense of community felt in their makeshift mosque was tangible.
In 2002, Muslim students led by Salah Mohamed '06 formed the Muslim Student Organization, and they asked Assistant Vice President for Facilities Peter Sandberg for a space to pray. Flaten Hall was the site of the original mosque on campus, but the building was destroyed to make way for the new Science Center last year. A new space was needed, and the Thorson basement was the best available space.
One of the principle concerns of Muslims on campus is how they use their Caf meals when the Caf is only open during the daytime. Executive Chef Peter Abrahamson worked with the students to allow them to take their food out of the cafeteria in covered plates similar to getting a take-out meal at The Cage. Yonis noted that the Bon Appétit staff has been completely supportive of the Muslim students.
Muslim students at St. Olaf share another unique experience: approaching the religion general education credits as an outsider. The religion education requirements on campus call for students to take two courses, both based on the Bible.
Yonis said that he had no experience with the Christian Bible before taking his introductory religion 121 class last year, and he was surprised to find that some of the stories were "almost the same" as those found in the Koran.
However, he read the Bible with a critical eye, because of an important difference between Christianity and Islam: Muslims believe that the Koran is the direct word of God, while the Bible is not taught in the religion department as the literal word of God. "We don't disrespect the Bible", Yonis said, but intimated that he was more comfortable with the direct word of God written down in the Koran.
The five-time-a-day prayer of practicing Muslims at all times of the year is not difficult to maintain, Mohamed added. "You can plan out your day around prayer," he said, noting that he simply finds a quiet place between bookshelves in the library between classes, quickly prays, and continues his day.
After a day of fasting, the Quran suggests breaking the fast as soon as the sun sets, and to first perform Du'a, or supplication, which is the ritual prayer the Muslim students perform each night in the Thorson basement. Another essential part of Ramadan is the Taraweeh, or evening prayer of reciting 1/30th of the Quran for each day of Ramadan. If performed each day, observers will have recited the entire Quran during the month.
Despite the physical demands of Ramadan, Mohamed said that he actually has more energy during the holy month than usual. "I'm driven by a spiritual energy," he said after noting that he had played basketball earlier that day.
Mohamed stated that because of the reduction of the number of distractions in his daily life, he has more focus. This year, Ramadan began on Sept. 13, and so the feast of Eid Al-Fitr will be the day after Ramadan ends, Oct. 14. Eid Al-Fitr is one of the two holiest days of the year when fasting is strictly forbidden, and everyone, including the poor, participates in a grand feast. Presents are given beforehand, and new clothes are worn.
The breaking of the fast, of course, is a highlight of a long day spent without food or water. Foods high in carbohydrates and sugar are often craved, as evidenced by the impromptu feast of candy bars, bread and rice in the Thorson basement last Tuesday night.
"You are more aware of what you are grateful for," said Mohamed before biting into a piece of flatbread covered with hummus.