Muslim Student Association celebrates Eid-al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan

The Association’s Mostafa Afr talks about the importance of shared community after 30 days of disciplined fasting and prayer.

Mostafa Afr sitting outside in the grass.

There are roughly 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, about a quarter of the world’s population, and almost all of them fast from sunup to sundown during Ramadan. Following a lunar cycle, the period lasts about 30 days.
Mostafa Afr, a third-year student from Phoenix majoring in electrical engineering and business in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, is president of the Muslim Student Association at Penn, where he estimates about a thousand people belong to the Muslim community. 
The Muslim Student Association supports Muslims on campus, offering education and space for prayer, along with social events like trivia night and soccer games. It’s important to have a mix of social activities while offering Muslims the opportunity to grow in faith, Afr says. “Diversity is important in a strong Muslim community. For everyone to feel welcome in that community is something we look at as being essential.”
Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, is observed through fasting, prayer, and good works. Afr was about 9 or 10 when he started fasting, a typical age for Muslims to begin, he says. 
Ramadan is a time for community, Afr says. “You’re fasting every day, and everyone around you is fasting. There’s a sense of solidarity. You feel that you’re really understood by the people around you, that you’re all going through it together in some sense, but, of course, there’s a personal aspect of it as well.” 
“The purpose of Ramadan is to deepen your relationship with God,” Afr says. Fidelity to the fast is between a believer and the divine he says. “No one really knows whether you’re in your room and you take a sip of water, you eat a little bite of pizza or whatever; no one’s there to check. There’s a sense of being mindful of your actions and disciplined in what you’re doing.”
Ramadan, he says, is a time when “you stretch yourself immensely,” especially during the last 10 days, when prayers continue at intervals through the night. Afr says that for him a typical schedule during that period might include rising at 5 a.m. to eat and drink, followed by prayer at 5:30 a.m. During the day, Afr says, he goes to class, studies, maybe tries to fit in a nap. By 7 p.m., he helps set up for the evening break-fast meal, called iftar, which the Muslim Student Association hosts in a rotating cast of spaces around campus every weekday. 
Between 150 and 200 people attend iftar with the Association, Afr says. To help, he might pick up food, lay the table, or set out prayer mats. By 7:30 p.m., there’s a communal prayer, followed by the iftar meal at 8 and prayer from 9 to 11. Afr then goes home to study, call his family, and sleep until about 3:30 a.m., when there’s a morning prayer. 
The intense schedule “brings your life into focus,” Afr says. “Pushing you to your limits shows you that you can do more, and it helps you with that focus throughout the rest of the year.” 
Almost anyone can fast, but not everyone knows what they’re capable of, he says. “The number one response I get from my friends when I say I’m fasting for 30 days is, ‘No water? Couldn’t be me,’” Afr says. “And it’s really not true. Almost a quarter of the world fasts at the same time; we’re just not as aware of it here.” 
The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid-al-Fitr, a three-day period that the Muslim Student Association is celebrating on April 10. It’s the one of the few times in the calendar when Muslims are actively forbidden from fasting, Afr says. 
“Eid is that culmination of community,” he says, “that first day is huge.” People give and receive gifts, he says, and wear their finest clothes, or buy new garments. It’s almost like graduation, he says. “You just went through this shared challenge.”
After a short, celebratory prayer, the meal begins. Going out to brunch for the first time in the morning is “almost euphoric,” Afr says. “You forget what it’s like to eat in the daytime.”