Soul Food: How Muslim Students at MC Balance Food and Faith

Pizza, egg and cheese sandwiches and nearly anything deep-fried are, for better or worse, among the staple foods relied on by college students. Cheap, tasty and available both on and off-campus, it’s hard to stay at Manhattan College for long without indulging in these time-tested collegiate treats.

But for students with dietary restrictions due to their religious beliefs, dining at Manhattan College is a markedly different experience. It’s a lifestyle that involves conscious food choices, restraint and planning – but also strengthens and reinforces their faith.

Muslim students at Manhattan College who eat Halal have certain requirements for what kind of food and meat they can consume, how it needs to be prepared and where it comes from. Haris Ali, Shahed Ahmed, Shimul Miah and Mahamoud Diop are all Muslim MC students (and leaders in the Muslim Student Association) who eat Halal and try to balance what’s available to them on campus with what they need to eat as part of their beliefs.

Ali explained the distinction in how Halal is different than typical food, other than the widely-known restriction that Muslims do not eat pork.

“Halal itself is just the animals that we’re allowed to eat. So automatically that separates pig from chicken,” Ali said. “But more specifically, there’s a way the meat should really be prepared.

“That’s when they cut the animal and recite the prayer, and then they let it bleed it out. That’s like the main thing, you let the animal bleed out.”

Finding this specific preparation of chicken, beef and other meats is hard to come by in the school’s surrounding area. So Haris, Ahmed and Miah, all commuter students, rely on what’s available at home.

“Even budget wise, it’s preferable to bring it from home. We can get more for less from our mom or our dad,” Ali said.

“We don’t have much access around here, because we don’t have many Halal stores around here,” Miah said. “I’ve realized that it’s not as difficult as it is to eat Halal. I feel like if you really try it, or bring food from home, it really helps.”

For students living on campus, without that access to home-cooked Halal meals, eating Halal presents an additional challenge.

For Diop, an international student from Mali, home is far away.

“As I’m a Muslim, one thing I’ve noticed is that in America they love pork. Bacon for breakfast, pepperoni pizza…,” Diop said. “It’s the culture here. And you obviously see that a lot in Locke’s. Sometimes I can’t eat a lot of the stuff that’s there.”

Diop relies on working with Rayna Herskowitz, the campus nutritionist, to plan his meals and Best Deli, a local joint that serves up fresh Halal, to meet his dietary needs.

Herkowitz is available to work one-on-one with students on their dietary restrictions or goals.

“I want people to know that this resource is available. Any sort of dietary restriction is important, no matter if it’s solely just preference, if it’s religion or an allergy, or a sensitivity, it’s all important to me” she said.

She can also assist with meal planning or even ordering specially cooked meals to meet the student’s needs, whatever they may be.

“With any type of dietary restriction, I like to let the student tell me what that means to them,” Herskowitz said. “I have a resource that I begin with for each religion, just to begin, but a lot of people can identify it and kind of make it their own, so I always want them to tell me what that means to them. And then we would take it from there and see what we could do to accommodate.”

Photo by Taylor Brethauer
Photo by Taylor Brethauer

And Herskowitz is right — eating Halal isn’t a cut and dry science. While there are certain foods to be avoided, how much attention is paid to the possibility of a certain food being cross contaminated with a restricted food is really up to the individual.

“I don’t really look further into [it],” Ahmed said. “I’m basically a vegan here expect for fish. That’s the best way to describe my eating patterns here.”

Eating vegan, Ali explained, is a way to avoid the chances that your food has been in contact with a meat product not properly prepared.

But they see benefits of eating Halal past simply following the rules of Islam.

“This is actually better for the animal,” Shahed said. “They suffer less,” in the preparation process.

Halal, which applies to the everyday life of Muslims and their diets, is only a piece of the pie for how Islam intertwines food and religious life.

Another important component to Islam is fasting, which is an expression of faith associated with some holy days and the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims fast from sun up to sun down, abstain from bad habits and destructive behaviors and especially emphasize prayer.

This abstinence from food during school or work makes college life as a Muslim especially challenging, but rewarding.

Miah took classes during Ramadan and found the month to be a challenge.

“I had about three, four classes everyday,” Miah said. ‘It was sort of hard.…I’d get tired. It would be hard to maybe concentrate a little, or get work done. Fasting and trying to be active is generally tough.”

Diop interned during Ramadan this past summer and found balancing both working and fasting to be difficult.

“Ramadan is harder in America than it is back in Mali. Even though it’s hotter in Mali….just everybody is doing Ramadan so you have that moral support, and they don’t make you work as much because they understand you’re in Ramadan,” he said. “Here, most of the people ….they’ll ask you to do some of the same tasks, so that makes it a little challenging.”

But the fasting is isn’t for naught. It’s a religious experience with real spiritual benefits for Muslims.

“It’s tough, but it’s a spiritual detox,” Shahed said.

“You are putting yourself in the position of someone who does not have access to food,” Miah said. “But at the same time, you are making a connection with God.”

Ali also explained that Ramadan, which involves habitual fasting, is actually easier than the occasional fasting that comes with specific holy days.

“When you fast out of habit, you might drink something accidentally or eat something. I was really good the whole day, and then my math teacher gave me chocolate to help me on my exam…and I just ate and and then like 10 minutes later I realized,” Ali said.

The college setting–and food-centric student lifestyle–makes it even harder to stay on track.

“You have to be really attentive. At home, your mom will stop you,” Ali said. “Sometimes it’s really hard, and everyone is eating around here.”

As Diop also pointed out, Locke’s closes relatively early in comparison to when Muslims typically break their fast, presenting an additional challenge. Diop said that at home, his family doesn’t break fast until at least 10 or 11 p.m., and Locke’s closes at 10 p.m.

Ramadan, however, is about more than just the food.

“You have to be careful of what you say, what you look at,” Ali said. “So if you’re not eating, but you’re doing those other things, it’s like null and void.”

In fact, the bigger picture is that eating Halal or practicing Ramadan is never just about the food. It’s about living out your beliefs and ultimately representing the faith well.

“If you’re identifying as a Muslim, there’s this factor of Muslim pride or your own self-respect. Anyone who is not a Muslim, they might not know anything about Islam but they know two things that Muslims do: they don’t eat pork and they don’t drink beer. If someone catches you, a non-Muslim, eating pork or drinking beer…there’s that level of shame…,” Ali said. “You’re presenting an image of a certain group of people. If you’re identifying, you have to be careful of the things you eat and drink or how you portray yourself in front of everybody else.”

While the college is a Catholic institution, these students have found a welcoming and respectful environment to express these beliefs here. They do occasionally get questions about their faith from curious non-Muslim students, especially in regards to fasting.

“If somebody does ask, it’s in a very respectful manner,” Shahed said.

“In other countries, you might be persecuted for wearing the Hijab. Here you can walk out in a black trash bag and people will be like, hey if that’s your thing and that’s what you believe in and you have valid reason, then you’re good,” Ali said. “No one should be ashamed of following their beliefs if that’s actually what they believe in. You shouldn’t conform to what other people are doing.