Prayer rugs are laid out at the interfaith center. Courtesy of the Muslim Students Association.

Muslim students seek to dispel Islamophobia, build community around faith

Sophomore Umar Shareef stands in the main room of the Interfaith Center on on the afternoon of Friday, March 27. Behind him, four rows of men — comprised of both Tufts students and community members — stand shoulder-to-shoulder, barefoot on the red carpets that cover the floor. Two rows of women, many of whom wear a head scarf, or hijab, stand in a separate section behind the men. Shareef sings “Allah hu-Akbar,” calling the Tufts Muslim community to prayer.

This prayer, hosted by the Muslim Student Association (MSA) every Friday afternoon, is called Jummah, Arabic for “coming together.”  This Friday’s prayer includes a sprinkling of non-Muslim students who are here for Interfaith Jummah, one of the many events making up the MSA’s Islamic Awareness Month.

According to MSA president and senior Abdurrahman Abdurrob, the purpose of Islamic Awareness Week is to increase the Muslim community’s presence at Tufts and educate students about Islam in the face of stereotypes linking Islam with violence.

“As Muslims, we don’t support violent acts around the world — ISIS isn’t Islamic, regular Muslims don’t have these views,” he said. “That’s been a focus of this Islamic Awareness Month, trying to tackle that issue of violence, and the fact that when we’re doing religious acts, they’re not radical acts.”

Along with Interfaith Jummah, Islamic Awareness Month has included a Halal-Kosher dinner on March 30, bringing Jewish and Muslim students together over dietary laws, a panel on April 3 called Islam 101: Debunking Islamophobia and an “Ask a Muslim” stand on March 25 in the Campus Center at which students were asked what “jihad” means to them.

According to junior Samira Manzur, the MSA’s Interfaith and Social Justice Chair, the stand aimed to detach the connotations of terrorism from the word “jihad.”

“When we explained that in Islam, [jihad] means struggle — your inner struggle or your outer struggle — some people said it was their bio-chem test or just waking up in the morning, or their struggle was having several struggles at the same time,” she said.

Sophomore and MSA Secretary Shaan Shaikh said that Muslim communities have been facing mounting Islamophobia in American society. He pointed out the burning of a mosque in Tennessee in 2007 and the shooting of Muslim students at UNC Chapel Hill this year, as well as arson and vandalism around the country.

“It’s definitely a tough time,” he said. “But I feel that, at the same time, I’m not too afraid of the hardships our community has to go through, because it’s times like these that you come together and become stronger.”

According to Abdurrob, the membership and activity of the MSA has exploded since his first year. Currently, the group has around 30 active members, a regular turnout of around 80 people at weekly Jummah and a large and proactive class of first-years.

For students, the MSA serves many purposes: it is a tight-knit social community, with game nights and an off-campus Muslim Culture House, and it is a religious center, providing a place for communal practice and learning. Specifically, prayer and the Koran, two fundamental tenets of Islam, have been centered the MSA through weekly Jummah and Koran circles immediately after.

Muslim Chaplain Celene Ibrahim-Lizzio, who joined the community last summer, sees the MSA as a family for Muslims on campus, as well as a space for her own family — her daughter and husband often attend services.

“It’s a space that’s so welcoming to all parts of me, not just professional, but the part that’s a mother, the part that’s a wife,” she said. “One of the most beautiful things is that I’m so nourished, praise to God, by the depth of spirituality, piety, pious practice and devotedness that’s in this MSA.”

As president, Abdurrob has sought to increase religious programming in order to make Islam itself the center of the community. This goal accompanies his own renewed practice of Islam, as he has recently began praying five times a day in accordance with traditional Muslim practice.

“For me, I think it has a lot to do with MSA and taking leadership in it, and realizing that for myself, I needed to become more connected to my faith on a consistent basis,” he said.

The MSA includes a spectrum of religious practice. Shaikh, who was raised in a moderate American Muslim family, sees the MSA as a resource for increasing his knowledge of Islam.

“Being around other Muslims helps you be a better Muslim,” he said.

Manzur grew up in Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country. During high school, she began to question her relationship with Islam.

“I felt like religion wasn’t playing the role I wanted it to play in my life, and there were other forms of ideas and spirituality that I leaned more toward than what was there in Islam for me,” she said. “But I’m still very connected to the cultural aspects of it, and the Muslims on campus in general.”

First-year Saja Alani considers herself a practicing Muslim. She prays five times a day, avoids alcohol — which is forbidden under Islamic law — wears a hijab and keeps her arms and legs covered.

“The way I dress is kind of a walking image of Islam,” she said. “In a way, it acts like a filter, because people who are open-minded aren’t afraid of that; they come talk to me [about it].”

The MSA also contains a wide variety of cultural backgrounds that include converts, people of Arab descent and people of South Asian descent.

Abdurrob and Manzur were both born in Bangladesh, Alani’s parents are Syrian and Shaikh’s grandparents are Pakistani.

Shaikh, Alani and Abdurrob all took care to distinguish between culture and religion — while religious guidelines remain constant, cultural traditions may vary greatly.

“We learn the culture of where our parents are from, but then we grow up in a different culture,” Alani said. “Each one of us goes through our own journey of melding our identity together and mixing those cultures. So it’s the religion that brings us all together.”

Older generations of Muslims may be split down cultural or ethnic lines in a way that younger, American-born generations are not, according to Alani. Shaikh said that the Tufts Muslim community is much more culturally mixed and tolerant than the more strict Muslim communities in which he grew up.

“One time during Eid dinner, I was about to sit at a table and one of the teenage guys a year or two older than me said, ‘Whoa, stop, this is the Syrian table.’ I did not expect that. Instead of arguing, I just picked up my stuff and left,” he said. “That’s unheard of here.”

According to Ibrahim-Lizzio, gender and relationships are a topic that Muslim students at Tufts are eager to explore. With an academic background in gender studies and Islam, Ibrahim-Lizzio has worked to lift up women’s spaces, such as discussion on women’s sexual health in Islam. Manzur added that next year, the MSA will have both a female and a male religious chair.

“We have many knowledgeable and very powerful women in the community, and I really enjoy seeing their leadership and the ways in which they’re carrying the community,” Ibrahim-Lizzio said.

Abdurrob noted that while the MSA’s executive board is split evenly between men and women, much of Islamic practice is oriented toward men.

“The female experience of Islam is very different than the male experience,” he said. “Historically, I think as Muslims we have a problem being considerate — we don’t do justice to giving everyone an equal voice. [Ibrahim-Lizzio] has definitely helped change that.”

Alani explained that in order to preserve the dignity of marriage that maintains equality for men and women, premarital relationships are not allowed in Islam. She said that a man and woman get to know each other by spending time together, similar to dating for non-Muslims. However, young people must gain their parents’ approval for marriage.

“Because marriage comes with responsibilities, it’s not like you’re just doing it for the fun of it — you don’t objectify anyone in any way,” she said.

According to Ibrahim-Lizzio, Muslim students must navigate their relationships based on these rules.

“There’s a lot of curiosity and people sensing where they want to draw their boundaries ethically, morally, religiously in terms of interacting across gender lines,” she said.

While Tufts is an accepting environment for Muslims according to most students, there are some logistical barriers. Praying five times a day can prove difficult, especially since there is no permanent, on-campus designated space for Muslim prayer. While early morning and late night prayer is done at the Muslim House, the MSA books a room in the Campus Center where students complete their three midday prayers. Alani also uses the bottom floor of Tisch Library as a place to pray during the day.

According to Abdurrob, the MSA’s short-term goals include designating a Muslim space for prayer on campus. Its long-term goals include founding a Muslim Center that will serve the entire community. Ibrahim-Lizzio has already begun the process of fundraising through alumni networks and University Advancement.

“I don’t want it to be something that only I’m working on; I want it to be an owned project. There’s a huge horizon of ‘that’s possible’ and it’s going step by step,” she said.

Update: The Daily exercised its discretion and closed comments for this article on Wednesday evening. We are in the process of reviewing our policy for moderating online comments, and we will update the Tufts community with this policy as soon as it is finalized.

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