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    Some muslim students torn between class and religion

    Next week, many Muslim students will have to choose between attending classes and celebrating one of Islam’s major holidays with their families.

    Eid al-Adha, which has been calculated to fall on Dec. 8, marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It occurs about 70 days after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting.

    Earlier this year, Muslim students were able to celebrate Eid al-Fitr alongside their families without having to miss valuable class time because the holiday happened to coincide with Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of the start of the Jewish calendar. The university canceled classes for two days and three evenings in observance of Rosh Hashanah.

    Although New York law mandates that students who miss class because of religious beliefs be allowed to make up tests and assignments, many students are uneasy about skipping out on classes.

    “Last year, I didn’t celebrate Eid because I didn’t want to miss lecture,” Umer Syed, a pre-med student, said. “Even though the professor said it was okay, I’m one of those people that never misses class.”

    Many students feel that the university is being unfair by not suspending any classes for either of the major Muslim holidays.

    “With such a significant number of Muslims on campus, it doesn’t make much sense,” Fawzia Syed said, a member of the Muslim Students Association. “We should have the same opportunity as people of other religions to take time off to celebrate.”

    The number of Muslim students on campus is hard to quantify because the university does not usually collect information on students’ religions. But a 2003 survey of full-time freshmen found five percent of respondents to be Muslim. Six percent were Jewish and 41 percent were Christian. The survey had a 37 percent response rate.

    “That’s pretty good for these types of surveys,” Emily Thomas said, director of planning and institutional research. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s what we have.”

    Mark Aronoff, vice provost and chair to the university calendar committee, said that he has looked into scheduling a break for Eid. “The problem with Eid is that you can’t determine in advance exactly when it will be,” he said.

    The dates of the holidays are determined by the appearance of the crescent moon. Although it is possible to determine when the moon will appear in advance, tradition requires that the moon be sighted before the holiday begins.

    When religious authorities from different countries or mosques determine that the moon has been sighted, they declare the start of the holiday. This also leads to different groups of Muslims possibly celebrating the holiday on different days.

    The university’s calendar is organized by a committee that meets every six years to draw up calendars for the upcoming six years. The calendars are then presented to the University Senate for approval.

    The chaplains on campus submit the approximate dates of their religions’ holidays to the provost every five years, and confirm the dates each year. The dates are posted on the Provost’s web page so professors can take them into consideration when planning their syllabi.

    In order to cancel classes on the first days of Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, the university would have to set aside about two or three days in advance, Aronoff explained.

    “We’ve tried very hard to deal with Eid, but it’s actually impossible,” he said.

    Sanaa Nadim, the Muslim chaplain on campus, agreed that two days would have to be set aside. “But it’s not that it can’t be done,” she said.

    Other schools have found different ways to tackle the problems faced when attempting to be fair to students and their faiths. In 1994, Syracuse University became the first American university to recognize Eid al-Fitr as a university holiday.

    Each year, Syracuse cancels classes on one holiday from each of the three major religions, said University Registrar Maureen Breed, who chairs the academic calendar committee. The holidays observed are Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Good Friday.

    The university, which creates five sets of calendars every five years, strictly follows holiday dates provided by campus chaplains.

    By choosing to officially observe one holiday from each major faith, Syracuse “demonstrates an appreciation of our diversity,” Breed said.

    Columbia University takes an opposing approach. It doesn’t cancel classes for any religious holidays, but instead encourages students to receive excused absences for classes missed because of religious reasons.

    In recent years, public school districts, including many in New Jersey, have begun to cancel classes for Eid al-Fitr, but this movement has been largely absent from universities.

    In 2004, SUNY Albany became the first public university to suspend classes for both Eids. After being petitioned by the student body, a bill that called for the cancellation of classes on both holidays was passed.

    A council of the University Senate was responsible for passing the bill, said Albany registrar Robert Gibson. The change was temporary and was only in effect for the 2004-2005 academic year.

    In the past decade, Stony Brook has come far in providing spaces and facilities on campus for different religions. When Nadim arrived on campus in 1993, a small group of Muslim students were using an old mailroom as a prayer room, she said.

    Nadim said she was determined to make a difference and create a stronger Muslim community on campus.

    “I sat, for a few years, outside of the dean’s office. And the assistant dean’s office,” she said, laughing. “And then I was very lucky.”

    Eight years ago, the university provided a large room for students to pray in, as well as bathrooms equipped with facilities that allow students to wash before praying.

    Nadim said she is thankful for the university’s accommodations, but she believes that students have the right to properly celebrate their holidays without having to miss class.

    “We are hoping that in the future, and with the country moving toward more dedication to diversity, that we may be able to finally have that day completely,” she said.

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