A solemn voice cuts through the muggy air inside of Dwight Hall Chapel at Yale University. Allahu Akbar. God is great. It’s time to pray.
Latecomers rush in through side doors, removing their shoes and crowding onto six rows of red and gold rugs, men settling near the front, women gathering in the final two rows, adjusting the brightly colored scarves covering their hair.
I watch from a chair in the back of the room, my loose hair and bare legs marking me as an outsider. I’m not unwelcome, but I’m unneeded. A seventh-century melody plays as worshippers perform the weekly jumuah prayer, thankful for each other, thanking God. Just beyond the chapel’s doors, the campus is alive with the promise of the weekend, oblivious to the ancient ritual unfolding nearby.
Islam is an island, but Yale’s borders are open. Muslim students learn to build bridges.
Rakibul Mazumder, a 2013 graduate, said his orientation week at Yale was a shock: “Staying with older kids, alcohol everywhere, people running around in their underwear. I was terrified, thinking, ‘Is this what college is like?’”
The month I spent walking alongside Yale’s Muslim students was a lot like college orientation. I attended events, met with current students, and tried to absorb the ethos of the community. Though I hold a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and a master’s from Yale Divinity School, my conversations with Muslim students and leaders schooled me in a new way. Lived religion is less finite than classroom religion, more in flux — subject to the influences of peers, mentors, and campus culture.
Challenges to Muslim identity
Core Islamic teachings include proscriptions against drinking, drug use, and sex outside of marriage — three activities that loom large in Yale’s social landscape. Observant Muslims are countercultural from the moment they arrive on campus, challenged daily to let Islam temper their newfound freedom.
Coming from a neighborhood in Queens full of Muslim families, Mazumder felt out of place among students who couldn’t wait to join Yale’s party scene. Comfort came in the form of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), whose members gather multiple times each week to pray, study, socialize, and support each other.
The MSA works closely with full-time chaplain Omer Bajwa. As the coordinator of Muslim life at Yale, Bajwa attends most MSA events and organizes jumuah each week. Nearly 200 students and a handful of faculty and staff practice Islam within Yale’s 11,000-member community.
“There are challenges and opportunities [in the Ivy League] that . . . are unique,” Bajwa said. “These places are quite secular. Your Muslim identity can be challenged in some pretty powerful ways.”
During her first night in the freshman dorms, senior Naureen Rashid came home to find a party underway, vodka already spilled on her desk. Worried about creating conflict with the roommate she had just met, Rashid sought advice from a friendly junior.
“She told me to explain where I was coming from,” Rashid said. Having people over wasn’t a problem, but alcohol was. Since Rashid would pray in the room, her space needed to be kept ritually clean.
Bajwa explained that if alcohol is spilled in a place of prayer, a Muslim student cannot pray. “The student has to claim a space and keep it tidy.”
Prayer is often a site of conflict during the school year. Salat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the requirement that Muslim men and women pray towards Mecca five times each day. Every prayer must be completed in a specified range of time, and students can often pray privately between classes in their rooms or at the musallah, a dedicated Muslim prayer space on campus. But as days get shorter in the fall, prayer times are closer together, meaning that a long seminar or sports practice might impact afternoon prayers. When she has to pray during class, Rashid treats it like a bathroom break, taking five minutes to herself in an empty classroom or corner of the hallway.
“There’s no requirement that you have to find a hidden space, but . . . we end up feeling a little shy or perhaps insecure about praying in front of other people,” said Bajwa. “I shouldn’t be self-conscious, but I don’t want to cause discomfort for other people.”
Though prayers vary in length according to a person’s pacing, each involves a series of ritual motions and repetition of passages from the Quran. As in Christian practice, prayer is an opportunity for reflection on the day’s events, for gratitude and supplication.
There’s a hadith (a recorded saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that says the whole world is a mosque. But Muslim students learn quickly that some spaces are safer than others.
“I do have trouble with individuals sometimes,” sophomore Ahmad Aljobeh said. Aljobeh, a member of Yale’s cross country team, sometimes has to leave practice to pray in a quiet gym hallway. Once, one of the gym’s directors stumbled upon Aljobeh praying. “I was standing there staring at the wall and I couldn’t answer his questions because I was in the middle of prayer,” Aljobeh said. “He said he was calling the cops and, even after I tried to talk to him, he just yelled.”
Aljobeh continued, “I don’t think everyone understands what it means to be a Muslim. That’s where the trouble is.”
Ignorance is amplified when members of the Yale community are afraid to ask questions.
“Yale is a very politically correct campus,” said Didem Kaya, this year’s MSA president. “I appreciate the idea of people respecting my practice, but political correctness might sometimes come in the way of actual learning.”
Kaya said she is happy to explain the requirements of a halal diet or discuss how she chooses which hijab to pair with her outfit each day. “As long as people ask you how you feel about answering a question, you’re in a safe space,” she said. “I practice this religion and it’s okay to talk about it.”
However, some students are uncomfortable being asked to speak for the entire faith, pointing to the diversity represented by even Yale’s small community of Muslims. “If someone asks me a question, I don’t want to act like an authority . . . I try to give answers from what I do,” said Aljobeh.
Global Muslim tensions at the campus level
Though Bajwa has no exact figures, he said the majority of Muslim students are of South Asian heritage and practice Sunni Islam. Many are the first generation in their family to be born in America, though some, like Kaya, are international students. The MSA also welcomes a few Shia Muslims each year.
The Sunni and Shia sects of Islam share the same sacred text, but conflicts arise over fiqh, or Islamic law. Historical violence between the groups creates tension in the MSA, though legal debates have a much smaller impact than differences in practice.
“It’s a very diverse community in terms of socioeconomics and political, intellectual, and geographical backgrounds,” said Shuaib Raza, a senior.
Bajwa encourages robust debate within the group, but warns event organizers about alienating students who are already struggling with being a minority at Yale.
“It’s not advisable to bring a strident Sunni voice,” said Bajwa, even if the Sunnis constitute a majority within the MSA. “We’re trying to bring people together.”
In general, events focus on shared values like reading the Quran and praying. When contentious issues need to be addressed, Bajwa trains leaders to “respect the process,” rather than rush to make changes that will upset the group’s cohesion.
Yale’s university chaplain, Sharon Kugler, calls it “taking the temperature of the community.” She and Bajwa have worked closely over the past six years to help the community move forward — a few careful steps at a time.
This semester, senior Wazhma Sadat asked Bajwa if she could write a khutbah, the message delivered at Friday prayer service. He agreed, under the condition that a male student present the talk in her place.
In Islam, males hold much of the authority. Yale Muslims uphold many gender-related conventions, such as isolating women in the back rows at the jumuah prayer service.
Overall though, the MSA is progressive compared to many in the ummah, the global community of Muslims. Kaya, the MSA president, describes it as a natural result of Yale’s international reputation for liberal academics. Muslims, like all applicants, self-select.
“Gender is still an issue in the greater Muslim discourse . . . but I think in terms of Yale, everyone has been receptive,” said Kaya, referring to her efforts to bring female students into leadership roles.
Sitting in the back of the chapel near Kaya, Sadat watched as Shuaib Raza delivered her khutbah. The message was on justice, and when Raza finished reading he went off the script to encourage the community to continue making room for its “sisters’ voices.”
Female, vulnerable, and visible
Young females are the most vulnerable members of the Muslim community, facing inequality within the MSA and high visibility outside of it. Many of Yale’s female Muslims wear the hijab, a discipline that involves covering the head and dressing modestly.
“Women in hijab feel particularly like a spotlight is shining on them,” Kugler said.
These females draw strength from their faith and each other. Their closeness is obvious in the hugs and smiles exchanged at the beginning of MSA events.
Naureen Rashid began wearing hijab halfway through her Yale career, inspired by friends and her deepening spirituality. Her only worry was that non-Muslim classmates and professors would see her headscarf and expect her to be the ideal Muslim woman.
“You want to be a person. You have flaws,” she said. “You feel like you’re representing an entire religion and that can be a lot of pressure.”
Rashid’s decision to wear hijab is surprising in an American culture that views college as a chance to leave behind inherited beliefs. Many Muslim students think it’s their belief in God that creates tension, rather than people’s bias against Islam.
“It’s hard to talk about God at a place like this,” said Mazumder. “In a religion class, you expect people to understand. You have to kind of police yourself in other spaces.”
Though Islam rarely comes up in the pre-law or pre-med classes that most MSA members take, students feel unprepared to defend themselves when it does. Kugler believes that Muslims sometimes suffer from the power imbalance in the classroom, adding that a student’s future lies in the hands of her professors.
Some students prefer not to debate the issue at all. When Shuaib Raza heard his faith lambasted by a professor, he collected his things and left. Raza avoided the conflict altogether, worried about arguing with the professor one day and getting a grade from him the next.
“You don’t want to raise any objection or be on your professor’s bad side given how subjective grading can be,” said Raza. “To speak out against the professor — is it really worth it?”
Like Raza, many Muslim students seem to believe that grades matter more. As Yale graduates, they will compete for high-paying jobs and acceptance to top graduate programs, confident that their Ivy League education will pay off.
That sentiment is key to understanding Yale’s Muslim students. Brought together by a shared faith and the need for non-alcoholic entertainment on weekend nights, the group is also united by their high achievements, by the ethos of success that permeates Yale’s campus. The resources of Yale and the strength of the Muslim community converge for these students at a moment in their lives when, for the first time, they control both their studies and their spirituality. Their story is about building a life out of the most beneficial aspects of Islam and Yale, leaving unsustainable parts behind.
Both Muslims and matriculates
When I began my research, I assumed that to be Muslim at Yale would mean forced isolation. Knowing that Islam creates a divide between men and women and demands abstention from drinking and casual sex, I thought that Muslim students would be in the Yale world but not of it, separated by their religious convictions.
What I found instead was an incredibly savvy community with students who at times felt uncomfortable, yet fulfilled by a Yale education. Where there is isolation, it’s chosen.
It is hard to talk about God at Yale, but Muslims don’t always want to talk about God. They want to study science, go shopping, and take classes on religion without having to be the resident expert on Islam. The students I interviewed were incredibly faithful, but they were still college students, skipping MSA events to finish assignments and sleeping through their morning prayer.
The Yale experience is fundamentally changed by a student’s observance of Islam, but influence also flows the opposite direction. Being at Yale alters Muslim students’ relationship to their religion, at the very least by exposing them to an academic environment that resists spiritual reasoning.
As jumuah prayer slowly draws to a close, some worshippers remain on the mats, not yet ready to end their prayer. Others find their shoes and venture outside into the sunny afternoon. A world of difficult choices and reasons to rejoice await. But these Muslims are ready. Islam and Yale have taught them well.
Alhamdulillah. Praise be to God.
Image courtesy of Nick Allen.