The college is moving the May 2020 Commencement ceremony from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to allow college community members to observe the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. Services for the holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, conflicted with the graduation ceremony’s previous morning time.
Muslim Chaplain and Interfaith Adviser Saifa Hussain said the college has been aware of commencement potentially conflicting with Eid al-Fitr for the last few years. As Hussain explained, the actual date of Eid al-Fitr varies because Muslim holidays rely on a lunar calendar. Observers celebrate Eid al-Fitr during the new moon after 29 to 30 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan.
While some Muslims rely on scientific calculations of the moon cycle to determine the date of Eid al-Fitr, others, according to Hussain, may not know its date until the day before, as they rely on their own observations of the moon phase each night to determine the arrival of the holiday. This can lead to different countries and communities celebrating the holiday on different days during the same year.
Soyibou Sylla ’20, the co-president of the Muslim Student Association, said he was grateful to hear that the commencement ceremony would be moved for the holiday.
“Growing up in Senegal, I always looked forward to Eid al-fitr. I was always excited to get a new outfit, visit my relatives, and have a feast,” he said. “I have only celebrated Eid al-fitr once at home over the last five years and it’s true that there is nothing comparable to celebrating it in Senegal, but I always have that spark of excitement and joy on the days leading to Eid and on Eid. The mere fact of going to the mosque in the morning is a tradition that I still deeply cherish.”
Sylla said learning that Middlebury would change the graduation time to accommodate the Muslim students was a relief.
“I felt heard, considered and included,” he said.
Discussions about the rescheduling of commencement to better accommodate Eid al-Fitr observers included members of the president’s office, the college calendar committee and the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life.
“Our role at the Scott Center, our main concern, is facilitating religious observance, so of course that’s our first priority if something like this comes up,” Hussain said.
Those involved with adjusting commencement suggested a few different possibilities, including switching the ceremony to a date as early as May 21 or as late as May 26, but ultimately decided that pushing the event a few hours would minimize disruption to senior events and reunion weekend, which follows soon after graduation. The rescheduling of commencement should allow Muslim community members to observe both ceremonies, as services for the holiday typically occur in the morning.
The process of rescheduling the college calendar due to conflicts with religious holidays is not new. Last year, Rosh Hashanah services took place in part on Monday, Sept. 10, on what would have been the first day of school during the fall semester. To accommodate Jewish students, faculty and staff, the college delayed the first day of classes until Tuesday, Sept. 11.
To Hussain, these adjustments represent a step in the right direction.
“Hopefully, long term, we are heading in a direction where our whole year, our whole calendar, is fully aware and understanding that there are students that have different ways of being and different cultures, and that is part of the fabric of the way we do things here,” she said.