Muslim holidays and what they mean to SFU students

Four SFU students share their knowledge on Muslim holidays and what they mean to them.

Image courtesy of The Muslim Skeptic, Daniel Haqiqatjou

By: Amal Javed Abdullah (Staff Writer), Hamza Malik (SFU Student), Ali Najaf(SFU Student), and Zach Siddiqui (Copy editor), compiled by Gabrielle McLaren (Features editor)

Dates to remember for 2018 – Zach Siddiqui

  • Ramadan: May 15—June 14. Due to the dates being decided through the lunar calendar, the first day is considered to start in the evening of May 15; therefore, the first day of fasting is projected to be May 16.)
  • Eid al-Fitr: June 14–15
  • Eid al-Adha: August 21–5

Note: The following dates may vary depending on your geographical location and mosque, as many of them are decided through the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian one.


On Ramadan – Amal Javed Abdullah

Ramadan is commonly known as the month of fasting, where Muslims around the world abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset every day. The idea is that as physical distractions are lessened, the observer of Ramadan is forced to focus on internal reformation, self-reflection, and connecting with God. It serves as internal retreat, often likened to a boot camp for the soul, which is intended to renew and refresh oneself internally for the rest of the year.

However, it is not only about becoming a mystic or an ascetic; Ramadan is about recognizing the importance of family and community, about spending time with your loved ones, about meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones. Ramadan is about recognizing your privilege and being grateful for your blessings, about volunteering your time and energy in food kitchens or handing out sandwiches to the homeless to help those who are less fortunate. Ramadan is about – though it may seem like a contradiction – food! One of the highlights of the day is iftar, the meal at sunset that breaks the fast: my experience has generally included more than an average share of samosas and pakoras.

The SFU Muslim Students’ Association holds free community iftar dinners at Burnaby campus on most Fridays of Ramadan. To experience the Ramadan spirit, attend an iftar! Details can be found on the SFU MSA’s Facebook page.


How does the lunar calendar work? —  Zach Siddiqui

If you’ve been paying attention to the coming and going of Muslim holidays year by year, you have probably noticed something interesting: the dates seem to change every year! Why might that be?

Well, you could say that the dates change from a certain point of view — namely, the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar that the West has operated on for centuries. First adapted from the Julian calendar in the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII’s calendar is based around the rotations of the Earth around the Sun. However, important days in the Islamic faith, of course, would hardly be dictated by a calendar designed by Christians in faraway regions. . . especially not a calendar created so long after the birth of Islam, which historians believe to have taken place in roughly the seventh century of the common era!

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, which means that its months and years are measured by the cycles of the moon. Like the Gregorian calendar, it has twelve months, but unlike the Gregorian version, it only has 354 days.

So, what does this have to do with how the dates seem to change? Imagine for a second that January 1 on the Gregorian calendar were to match up with the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Now jump forward 353 days. Assuming neither year is a leap year, that puts us at the last day of Dhu-al-Hijjah, the last month on the Islamic calendar. But 353 days later on the Gregorian calendar puts us at December 20 — not the last day on the Gregorian calendar. So, if we were to go one more day forward. . . we would be on the first day of Muharram in the second year of the Islamic calendar, but on the Gregorian calendar, we would only be at December 21 of the first year, not January 1. To put it in simple terms: each year, the Islamic equivalent of any given date on the Gregorian calendar is 11 days earlier than it was the year before. This means that, if you’re measuring time on the Gregorian calendar, as much of the highly-globalized world now does, the dates of Muslim holidays look like they are changing, when, in fact, they’re exactly when they’ve always been.

Of course, aside from that cultural drift, there are small disagreements about when things are supposed to happen even within the Muslim community itself. The beginning of Ramadan is a prime example of this. Some Muslims simply check online for when the new moon is supposed to be visible in their country of residence, since, with modern technology, we can determine the exact date with ease. Others wait on word from their local masjid — mosque — to find out when their local community recognizes Ramadan to have begun. Still others take cues from Saudi Arabia, or else their family’s country and/or city of origin, to figure out when to start fasting.

The latter cases happen partially because many practitioners of Islam still rely on a literal moon sighting to confirm when the proper day to begin fasting is — something which is made difficult by adverse weather conditions and the fact that the new moon, being a black disk against a night sky, is not the easiest thing to see. This, incidentally, leads to a further divide: some will use the sight of the new moon as their signal, while others will wait until the moon’s crescent starts to become visible, which some interpretations of the Holy Qu’ran would suggest is the correct approach.

That said, I did find it interesting  how this Vox article summarized the stance taken by proponents of the scientific approach to calculating the date: “Islam has a strong tradition of reason, knowledge, and science, and [. . .] if Mohammed were around today, he’d choose the more precise scientific calculations over sending the guy at the mosque with the best eyesight outside to squint at the night sky.”


Ramadan far from home – Ali Najaf
Ramadan is one of the 12 months of the Islamic lunar calendar, where Muslims keep fast during the whole month. Fasting is also one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It teaches self-patience and compassion for others, as well as the importance of community building as in many communities. People break the fast together to keep the community spirits high.

Happiness on every face, big feasts, and late night markets come alive after a month-long spiritual journey of Ramadan, when celebrating Eid al-Fitr.  It’s a three-day festival where families and friends meet with each other and celebrate.

Living as an international student makes you miss home during ethnic celebrations. Ramadan is not celebrated with the same zeal and zest as back home, especially as you are away from your loved ones. Fortunately, I can say that we have a big Muslim community in Vancouver. Groups like the Muslim Student Association at SFU help bring back the feeling of home as they arrange events throughout the month.


Fasting teaches you what you choose to learn from it – Zach Siddiqui

Food and I have a tumultuous arrangement. I switch between extremes of consumption like a pendulum, swinging from carefully starving myself to forcing torrents of sugar and slick oil into myself. It is incredibly unhealthy; my way of eating tends to eat me up inside. Yet I still manage to overcome that and fast for the duration of one lunar cycle in twelve, for as long as the sun shines.

People don’t believe it. No food? Nothing to drink? All day? You? But it isn’t so mysterious. Like the cotton that stuffs a doll, when I breathe in the air of the month of Ramadan, it fills me up and strengthens my shape. I feel powerless sometimes, not only against my gustatory urges but against the greater part of living; the roza of Ramadan is my strength.

To me, fasting is the reminder not to waste what you have been given; the revelation of what it means to go without. It is the release from having only material sources of joy, and a recourse for becoming closer to God. The fast means many things to many Muslims.

(Of course, it doesn’t always feel so poetic. There are times where the hunger feels like too much — times where your temper runs short, or your energy runs dry. No one is perfect, and so none fast perfectly. Nonetheless, we continue, and happily.)

Ramadan means my family dines together, and together, my mother and father experiment with traditional Afghan dishes in fascinating yet economically sensible ways, in preparation for nightfall. Always, they have taught us not to fast for the wrong reasons. There is no point giving up luxuries during the day if all you do is gorge and waste at night, my mother taught me. No point teaching yourself the meaning of going without food, if you can then continue to watch others starve without feeling any sympathy. No point making sacrifices, if your foul mood forces others to sacrifice their own happiness just to placate you. You can follow the word of Islam even as you think critically. That agency, that restraint, that balance is what you could call self-control in its truest sense.


Eid al-Adha – Hamza Malik

Eid al-Adha is one of two key Islamically ordained holidays celebrated by Muslims across the world. It commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son Isma’il (Ishmael) as an act of obedience to God. As recognition for Ibrahim’s act of obedience, God instead brought forth a male sheep for slaughter. Eid al-Adha also marks completion of the annual Hajj pilgrimage performed by millions of Muslims in the holy city of Makkah.

Some hallmark customs for Muslims on this day involve attending a special morning prayer, followed by the mandatory sacrifice of certain cattle, as an homage to the story of Ibrahim. The meat from the sacrificed cattle is then distributed into three parts: one third is designated for the poor, another third for neighbors, friends, and other relatives, and the final third is for one’s immediate family. The celebratory aspects of this day involve the meeting of family and friends, the distribution of gifts and coming together as a community to reflect upon the blessings of God.

Mawlid al-Nabi al-Sharif —  Zach Siddiqui

This is both the birthdate and the death date of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him)*. Whether or not one observes this time varies from culture to culture. Some countries celebrate it with street processions, charity-giving, and festive decorations. In others, such as Saudi Arabia, it is directly forbidden to celebrate Mawlid.

The debate of whether or not the Prophet’s birthday should be celebrated at all is a longstanding and prominent one. Those who are against it argue that, because the Holy Qu’ran does not instruct Muslims to observe the Prophet’s birthday, to do so is in fact a false addition to the faith — also known as a bid’ah — that must therefore be abolished. Others balk at the very idea of failing to celebrate the Prophet.

One particular argument a Huffington Post article poses on the topic is that “. . . adding anything to Islam is a bid’ah, and . . . it violates and compromises the sanctity of divine revelations. But . . . rendering what is permitted as forbidden is just as bad as deeming what is forbidden as permitted. We must be careful about how we define bid’ah.”


*Note: “Peace be upon him” is the translated form of an honorific epithet often used to follow the name of any prophet in Islam, commonly seen with the name of the Prophet Mohammed.