WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 (RNS) -- Thousands of miles away from her family in Pakistan, Sabeen Mushtaq couldn't help but think of them as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approached.

The George Washington University freshman was living away from home for the first time, and missed her family's holy season traditions -- especially the egg omelets and homemade bread her mother cooked for suhur, the family's morning meal.

"It was strange not being with my family for Ramadan," remembered Mushtaq, who has celebrated Ramadan--a holy month of discipline through worship and fasting for the more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide--since childhood. "I really missed being home."

She found comfort among George Washington's large Muslim student population.

"It was a relief to be with other Muslims practicing the same thing for Ramadan," said Mushtaq, now a senior finance major at the Washington, D.C., university. "I felt at home."

With the advent of Ramadan this year on Nov. 27 (a moveable season because the Islamic calendar is lunar-based), Mushtaq and other Muslim students nationwide will join the country's estimated 6 million Muslims in marking Islam's holiest month with prayer, reflection, and study of the Qur'an.

Muslims who are able also abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset during the 30-day period. Communal prayers and Eid ul-Fitr ("feast of the fast breaking") mark the end of the holy days.

"There is definitely a greater sense of community on campus during Ramadan," said Faten Hijazi, vice president of San Jose State University's Muslim Student Association. "The whole time you're conscious of your Islamic identity because there's such a sense of unity when the whole school's Muslim population is doing the same thing at the same time."

The same is true at many other universities, including Duke University in Durham, N.C., said Lala Qadir, a junior chemistry major at the school.

"Ramadan definitely ties you to other Muslims because everyone is in the same situation," said Qadir. "It can be a challenging time, but you know there are students who are also going through the same thing you're going through."

Catered iftar dinners (marking the end of the daily fast) bring Muslim students together at George Washington University, said El-Wafi, vice president of the Washington, D.C., university's student Muslim group, which organizes the dinners.

As many as 200 students--including a smattering of non-Muslims--gather at a nearby church to break their fasts with the traditional meal of dates and water before indulging in biryani, falafel, and other South Asian fare.

"At the dinners there really is a heightened sense of community--no matter what your background is or what your experiences are, this one month is something we all have in common," said El-Wafi. "You feel that support and that sort of gives you a boost the rest of the year."

The support drawn from that sense of community can be a blessing for Muslim students.

"Last year me and my roommate had trouble getting up in the morning to eat, and one of our friends would call us to let us know to get up," said Lubabah Abdullah, president of the Muslim student group at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "We do the same thing now for our friends."

El-Wafi agreed.

"It definitely helps to have that support system when you're trying to establish an Islamic way of life," said El-Wafi, whose organization often places an ad in the campus newspaper to mark the arrival of Ramadan. "On a college campus a lot of norms go against what we try to practice. So when fellow Muslims help support each other, you realize you don't have to follow those practices that go against our religious ideals."

Charity and good deeds are also stressed during Ramadan, and at Georgetown University, Muslim students put those ideals into action by volunteering to distribute food to the homeless or take part in other service projects. They also hold interfaith iftar dinners to teach non-Muslims on campus about Islam.

"The university setting is one of the best opportunities to teach about different faiths," said Shaheen Kazi, president of Georgetown's Muslim student group. "When we're in college it's the one time we're all dedicated to learning--not just in the academic sense, but learning about the people around us."

Muslim students at the University of Missouri at Columbia hold an open house at the on-campus mosque during Ramadan to share their heritage with non-Muslims.

"We just really try and educate people about what Islam is really all about," said Abdullah. "A lot of the time they're being exposed to Islam for the first time."

At American University in Washington, free copies of Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, will be distributed to students during Ramadan. In addition, an all-expenses paid trip to Saudi Arabia will be awarded to the top winner (whether student or non-student) of a Qur'an memorization contest.

"Reading the Qur'an is a way for people to get closer to God," said Yasmin Said, president of the university's student Muslim group, which is organizing the contest with the help of the Glorious Quran Memorization Association of America. "This way we can encourage people to do that, help increase their spirit."

For John "Yahya" Halliwell, who converted to Islam two years ago, experiencing Ramadan on campus with other Muslim students will be a unique experience. He said he was one of just three Muslims in his senior class at a private Catholic high school in Rhode Island.

"It's going to be exciting to do this with more than just one or two other people," said Halliwell, a first-year student at Georgetown. "It's an incredible experience just to know you're not alone--especially at school. I've never really had that before."
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