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Students speak about Islamic life on campus

by SARAH MERVOSH | Monday, October 4, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series about Muslim students who attend the University of Notre Dame.

Junior Hiba Ahmed wore a dress and leggings to class Friday, but by mid-afternoon, she was standing in the parking lot of the local mosque, dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing.

She used the reflection in her SUV’s window to wrap a scarf around her head, adjusting it so that it covered stray strands of hair, and headed up a small hill toward the door women use to enter the mosque.

Ahmed, one of the few Muslim undergraduate students who attend Notre Dame, left her shoes at the door and entered the section of the mosque designated for women.

“Women and men pray separately in order to try and minimize any distractions,” Ahmed said. “A very attractive woman could potentially be distracting to some guy while he’s trying to connect with God.”

Though men and women are physically separated, the congregation prays aloud together, led by an imam, the Islamic version of a priest.

Muslims from around the South Bend area trickled in during the service and sat down on the floor in the self-made rows of the congregation. Some wore more traditional Islamic clothing, while one boy wore his high school football jersey and a man attended in hospital scrubs.

During the service, which lasted about 45 minutes, the congregation said verses of the Quran aloud as they repeated kneeling, bowing and putting their foreheads to the ground.

“The kneeling and the bowing and putting our foreheads to the ground are a physical manifestation of the idea of devoting yourself, worshiping and submitting to God,” Ahmed said.

Attending mosque every Friday is just one of several customs Ahmed and other Muslim students carry out while attending Notre Dame.

Ahmed, who considers herself to be slightly more than moderately religious, prays five times a day — fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam. 

“In the morning I actually make sure to get up 20 to 30 minutes earlier in order to pray and to read the Quran,” she said. “I read the Quran every morning.”

The additional four prayer times are around lunchtime, midday, sunset and before going to bed. Ahmed said she will spend anywhere from five to 40 minutes praying each time.

“I think the minimum is five to 10 minutes, if you are rushed. You can make it much longer than that,” Ahmed, who is a Sunni Muslim, said.

Sophomore Sadaf Meghani, an Ismaili Muslim, which is a sect of Shia Islam, said she prays three times a day.

“That’s more according to how we interpret the Quran,” she said.

The Islamic religion separated into two sects — Sunnis and Shias — due to differences in how Muslims in the 600s believed they should be led, and who should lead them, after the prophet Muhammad died. While major beliefs remain the same, the separation resulted in slight differences in how they pray, fast and interpret the Quran today, Ahmed said.

Meghani said she does not attend the local mosque because it is more directed at the Sunni sect of Islam.

“The closest place that I can pray is in Chicago,” she said. “So I’ve gone there once when I was here, but because it’s so far, I don’t really have time to make the trip.”

Ahmed said her religion pervades many aspects of her life, including how she dresses. Though she does not wear a scarf on her head, other than to the mosque, she always covers up her legs and wears shirts with sleeves. 

“Technically I’m supposed to be covering my entire arms, my entire legs and wear a scarf, but just like anything else, the degree to which you practice your religion is a matter between you and God,” she said. “It’s a very personal issue.”

Ahmed said in America, no one is forcing Muslim women to cover themselves and it is generally a personal choice.

“It’s a very romantic idea to me the fact that the only man that will only get to see me with less clothing will be my husband,” she said.

Islam’s ideas also affect how Muslim students relate to the opposite sex.

Junior Yasir Malik said Islam prohibits one-on-one dating.

“I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never pursued a girl,” he said. ” It’s not supposed to happen.”

Malik, whose parents had an arranged marriage, said his parents discussed the option of doing the same for him. But he said he is “too American” to have an arranged marriage.

“My parents will look for me and other people I know will inquire about me to my parents, but I kind of have a veto power now a days,” he said. “Or I can find my own person.”

But Malik still plans on marrying a Muslim girl.

“It’s definitely probably going to be a Muslim girl,” he said. “Ideally, I’d find someone myself, probably when I get out of college.”

Though growing up in America and staying true to a traditional religion can sometimes come into conflict, these students said the key is balance, and being comfortable with their relationship with God.

For example, Ahmed said she wore a short, strapless dress to her homecoming dance senior year of high school, but wore tights and a cardigan with it.

“I’ve never felt bad about who I am,” she said. “Each individual has to have the self confidence to be who they are and still feel like they fit in.”

The second installment of this series will examine how Muslim students experience life at a Catholic university. It will run in tomorrow’s Observer.