UCSF Professor Reflects on Holy Month of Ramadan

Jess Ghannam

The Muslim community at UCSF will join more than one billion Muslims around the world to participate in Ramadan, a time for spiritual purification and reflection achieved through fasting, praying and exercising self-restraint.

Among those observing the holy month is Jess Ghannam, PhD, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences.

Ghannam is among those named to serve on the newly created Council of Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion, which met for the first time at UCSF on July 22.

Co-chaired by UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, the council aims to go beyond addressing traditional definitions of diversity and ethnic ratios to truly focus on promoting inclusion and equity, as well as on creating an environment in which everyone can thrive.

Ghannam, who seeks to increase understanding about Islam and Muslims, was interviewed by UCSF Today on the eve of Ramadan, which begins around Wednesday, Aug. 11.

Q: Tell us about your background. How long have you been at UCSF and what is your role?

A: I have been at UCSF since 1986 as faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and in the department of Global Health Sciences working to develop health related projects in the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia.

Q: What are your thoughts as a member of the new Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion?

A: UCSF is an amazing place to work because of the rich diversity and mosaic of communities that are represented here. The challenge of working in a setting that is diverse is to make room for and respect the many differences in culture, history, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, language and religion that are represented at UCSF.

Chancellor [Sue] Desmond-Hellmann has taken a bold leadership role in promoting a respectful climate of inclusion at UCSF by forming the council. With Provost Bluestone and Dr. Bobby Baron, the Chancellor is co-chairing the council. Our first meeting brought together representatives from many communities at UCSF and the stage has been set for creating a climate of respect and inclusion for everyone at UCSF. I consider my work with the council among the most important responsibilities I have at UCSF and it is exciting to work with such a devoted and committed group.

Q: What is the significance of Ramadan?

A: On or about August 11th, 1.5 billion Muslims around the world will begin a month of deep spiritual engagement. Every year, the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar is referred to as Ramadan. During this period, Muslims are encouraged to engage and re-connect with their faith. This includes fasting everyday from dawn to dusk. It is a complete fast from food, water, and physical and psychological indulgences.

During the month, Muslims are encouraged to focus on their faith, practice self-restraint, and reflect on their place in the world. It is a time to empathize with those who are less fortunate and to appreciate and honor your family, your community, and take steps to improve the world. One aspect of improving the world is through charitable giving, referred to as “Zakat” and Muslims are encouraged to donate a percentage of their income to people and communities who are less well off. Fasting during Ramadan is considered one of the five pillars of Islam. The other pillars include a declaration of faith, daily prayer, charitable giving and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Q: How will Muslims observe the occasion?

A: In addition to fasting from dawn to dusk everyday, Muslims observe Ramadan through the daily breaking of the fast, referred to as an Iftar. Typically the fast is broken slowly by having dates and water. Then family, friends, and loved ones gather to have a festive meal together in the evening. During Ramadan it is also typical to spend time reading the Quran, the holy text for Muslims, and to gather in one’s local Mosque for prayer and special recitations from the Quran.

Q: How large is the Muslim community at UCSF and do you network with each other?

A: In the United States, there are approximately 7 million Muslims. We can only guestimate the number at UCSF and I would say there it is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000, including staff, students and faculty. We do have a Muslim Student Organization on campus and each campus does give a place for Friday Prayer, or Jumaa.

Q: What is the most important thing you would like to convey about the Muslim community?

A: Islam is one of three monotheistic religions and there are many shared beliefs and values that Islam has with Christianity and Judaism. This is a challenging and difficult time for the Muslim community and my hope is that during Ramadan, our campus community will take the time to learn more about Islam.

Related Links:


UCSF Advances Focus on Diversity
UCSF Today, July 27, 2010

UCSF Diversity website

Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion