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Ramadan Mubarak, From My Organic Chemistry Lab

Suffocated for more than two years by an agonizing pandemic whose global grip only finally appears to be loosening, Muslims around the world look forward to the revival of community life with the recent start of Ramadan — a month of fasting from sustenance and sin, observed each day from the hours of sunrise to sunset.

For Muslims who practice this ritual, Ramadan is a profoundly special period. The month’s value sits uniquely at the interface of personal and collective spiritual growth, where, in abstinence of worldly pleasures, our devotion to Islam can be cultivated both within ourselves and our Muslim communities at large.

For me, this year’s observance of Ramadan promises a particularly exciting, though almost unfamiliar, return to spiritual community. It marks my first communal iftar — the meal to signify the conclusion of the daily fast — and my first taraweeh prayers — the set of community-led, nightly prayers distinct to the month of Ramadan — in three years. Perhaps most exceptionally, this will be my first Ramadan away from home, at Harvard.

Before Covid-19, I had never considered that it would be a luxury to no longer merely imagine, but to live a proper, in-person, Ramadan on Harvard’s campus. And at a time when my memory of a communal Ramadan has begun to slowly erode, the newly-resurrected opportunity to cherish this sacred experience with the Harvard Muslim community this year — from iftar to taraweeh to simply our presence with each other — should be fundamental to remembering this month’s central project of community-building.

But tonight, I’ll be breaking my fast in an organic chemistry lab.


Canonized as the boogeyman of undergraduate pre-medical requirements, organic chemistry is certainly no small mountain to climb. It is often regarded as the most well-oiled machinery in the industry of pre-medical hazing, whereby introductory science courses are often cruelly designed to carve hierarchies of the most “capable” future scientists and physicians — and all those who elect to prioritize other passions or even their own mental health are systematically discarded as the “weeded out.”

My organic chemistry lab section, though — a four-hour-long program of molecules and mechanisms from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. each Monday night — has the additional pleasure of weeding me out from parts of my first experience of an on-campus Ramadan. Tonight, and every Monday night in April, I will exchange my communal iftar for my lab coat, my taraweeh prayers for my lab notebook, and my religious community for my lab section. This month is my first Ramadan on campus, and it is my first Ramadan in a lab; the fact that I must — in the words of course staff — find a way to “balance” the two reveals the existence of an insidious infrastructure festering beneath Harvard which judges marginalized identities as inconveniences.

Students of underrepresented backgrounds should not be pushed so far to the margins that they must plead loudly and uncomfortably to belong at Harvard. Yet I have done so since January: I requested accommodations for additional, earlier lab sections and for options to exit the lab early so that I might still be able to partake in our communal iftars and prayers. But the fruits of my labor — the permission I have since received to break my fast for a predetermined period of less than twenty minutes in a side room in the lab — are rotting. They reduce the spiritual richness and complexity of Ramadan to a transaction of food and drink and entirely distort the obligations of my religion as a loss in productivity and in caliber as a pre-medical student at Harvard. To reconcile lab and Ramadan, it seems, is code for reconciling being at Harvard and being Muslim.

These scars of unbelonging for Muslims are inscribed far and wide around Harvard’s campus. The soul of this issue lives not only in organic chemistry labs, but also in Harvard’s very foundation — in the small and poorly-lit lone prayer hall Harvard cast aside for its hundreds of Muslim students in the basement of a freshman dormitory, or in the only two permanent Halal meal stations across 12 undergraduate Houses for which Muslim students must compete.

I once believed that our requests for belonging were grueling demands, as if my Muslim identity somehow strained and exhausted a corporation that grew $11.3 billion during a pandemic — the very pandemic that made me a virtual student last spring and my memories of a communal Ramadan feel like shards from a distant past. I once believed that erecting a Muslim prayer space comparable to the impressively-towering presence of Memorial Church, that offering Halal dining stations in each undergraduate House, or that extending accommodations for a religious practice observed by nearly two billion adherents would be too taxing on Harvard. I once believed that when it came to institutional support for the expression of my identity, I should settle.

But the boundary between accepting the status quo and reimagining a better, more just future is porous — and it requires crossing. Muslims at Harvard will not be content to break our fasts with the crumbs of visibility this institution affords us. We need — and we expect — this University to mobilize itself in our support, to lift the burden of hoping for more that we Muslims too often shoulder and to finally do more for us.

So, as I break my fast in my organic chemistry lab tonight, I will pray to live that future, for myself and for the rest of my Muslim community.

Sameer M. Khan ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History of Science and Social Anthropology concentrator in Adams House.