Ramadan is not just a time for coming together but also for sharing and “strengthening interfaith dialogue,” according to McCormick fourth-year and resident assistant Abdallah Khawaldeh.
“I can’t tell you how many times I had conversations with my residents,” Khawaldeh said. “I would be studying, and they greet me with ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ or ‘Ramadan Kareem,’ and it starts a conversation. They genuinely want to learn and hear about other religions.”
Khawaldeh’s experience comes during a historic moment. For the first time in 30 years, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Bahá’ís celebrated a holiday within the same month. Ramadan, Passover, Easter, Vaisakhi and more holidays overlapped.
This moment reflects the foundational Bahá’í value of unity, according to McCormick first-year and Baha’i Club President Julia Yazhari.
“Celebrating these differences that make each of us unique and special and embracing each other’s diversity – it’s really awesome,” Yazhari said.
Although the overlap emphasizes the importance of celebrating diversity, interfaith connections at Northwestern exist throughout the year. Since Fall Quarter, 653 events have been held in Parkes Hall, according to Kristen Glass Perez, the university chaplain and executive director of religious and spiritual life. More than a hundred of these events – around 16% – were organized by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Glass Perez said. She added that the rest were organized by student groups.
Toward the end of one recent gathering in Parkes Hall, Glass Perez said, there was an “optional time for those who were interested to participate in an Iftar, which is the daily breaking of the fast during Ramadan.”
“It’s very special to witness and be invited into someone else’s tradition,” Glass Perez said. “And so we are always in religious and spiritual life trying to encourage and support opportunities to do that.”
The events in Parkes Hall do not include people like McCormick first-year Favour Onukogu, who prefers to join her New York church via Zoom for Easter services. When asked about the importance of taking time to celebrate the holidays despite being a busy college student, Onukogu said, “You can’t be go, go, go all the time. I don’t think anyone would be able to sustain themselves without rest.”
Despite individual students’ commitments, college religious attendance nationally has reached an all-time low, according to the Freshman Survey by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). The research says that since the last time these holidays overlapped in 1991, the percentage of college students who say they have no religious affiliation has more than tripled.
Amar Shah (Weinberg ‘16), Northwestern’s first Hindu Chaplain and the newest addition to the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, noticed this trend. He said that fewer young people have been participating in institutional religious functions, both in Hinduism and across faiths.
This is because current institutionalized religious practices and the systems to facilitate them are “a little outdated,” according to Shah. He suggested innovation as a solution, possibly by using social media to connect with students.
“That way, this information, these celebrations, can be found in a way that’s digestible by the current student population,” Shah said. “And I think that’s also some of my value as the Hindu Chaplain. I’m the youngest chaplain at the university, so helping bring fresh ideas, fresh approaches has been helpful.”
Director of Interfaith Engagement and Muslim Chaplain Tahera Ahmad believes that the decline in engagement isn't reflected in minority religious groups, such as Muslim students. She said some of the decline was due to COVID-19, but many religious students outside of mainstream Christianity have actually grown closer to their traditions.
“It doesn’t mean that people aren’t interested in questions of religion and spirituality,” Ahmad said about the declining religiosity seen in the CIRP survey. Rather, Ahmad attributes this to declining membership in white Christian churches.
The percent of U.S. adults who say they are Christian declined by fifteen percent between 2007 and 2021, according to a Pew Research study. The same study found that the number of people who identify with “no religion” increased by thirteen percent.
Weinberg second-year Evan Carman said he’s also grown closer to his Jewish faith in college and attributes this to needing a reprieve from academic pressures. He said he feels that “there’s no space [in Northwestern academics] for the kind of ambiguity that religion has.”
“[Religion] has provided a welcome escape from the hyper-rationalism of academics and college,” he added.
April is also Wildcat Interfaith Month, which is dedicated to fostering interfaith understanding among the University community. Both Khawaldeh and Carman expressed hope that it would lead to more interfaith events.
“In a lot of these organizations, the point is to get people of the same faith together, and you don’t want to subtract from that experience,” Carman said. “But there’s definitely a space for more cooperation.”