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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Strength In Faith: Muslim students remain grounded in faith

Inside the sanctuary of Muller Chapel, senior Anikah Shaokat sits alone by the glass windows, her eyes closed and her hands held close to her face. She has just finished praying, and the space around her is completely, utterly quiet. Her mouth is closed, and her face remains peaceful. But within the silence, she is talking to Allah.

Shaokat is a practicing Muslim student at Ithaca College — one of 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, according to the Pew Research Center in 2011. A monotheistic faith, Islam is currently the world’s fastest-growing religion, with Muslims predicted to make up 29.7 percent of the world population by the year 2050. The word “Islam” derives from the Arabic word “salam,” which means “submission,” primarily to the will of God, referred to as Allah. The words peace and safety can also be derived from the word salam.

Some of the basic tenets and central beliefs of Islam include the belief in one God, Allah, and the practicing of the Five Pillars of Islam: shahada, salat, zakat, sawm and hajj. Shahada translates to the confession of faith that becomes the two fundamental beliefs: Allah is the only God, and Muhammad is God’s prophet. Salat is the Islamic ritual prayer, in which Muslims are called to pray five times a day: at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset and evening. Zakat, meaning almsgiving, calls Muslims to be charitable and give alms to the needy. Sawm refers to fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, where Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, which is seen as a form of self-purification. Hajj refers to the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the holiest city in Islam. Muslims are expected to fulfill this duty at least once in their lifetime.

An international student born in Bangladesh, Shaokat grew up in a Muslim household. Shaokat was introduced to different principles in regard to practicing her faith and said says Islam has had a strong influence in making her the person she is today.

“I believe in equality, I believe in love, I believe in kindness, and I believe in empathy,” she said. “And I think that is what religion and that is what Islam is all about, especially for me.”

As evidence of her strong ties to her faith, Shaokat tries her best to follow the Quran, the Islamic holy book. The Quran and the Hadith are the two main sacred texts of Islam, teaching the beliefs, practices and values central to the religion. The books also serve as historical documents, retelling the origins of the Islamic faith. The Quran is considered the most sacred, as it is believed to be the word of God revealed to Muhammad. The Hadith records the sayings of both Muhammad and his followers. Together, the Quran and the Hadith serve as the foundation for Islamic practice and Sharia, Islamic law.

In fulfilling salat, Shaokat actively tries to pray five times a day despite the busyness of college life.

“I try to say my prayers five times a day, which is very hard,” she said. “When you’re saying your prayers, there’s a matter of cleanliness. There’s a matter of dressing a certain way. There’s a matter of covering yourself appropriately, which I try to do my best when I’m praying.”

Shaokat chooses to practice Islam in her own personal way and said she strongly identifies with her faith.

“I do the things that the Quran mentions to do: I pray, I read my Quran, and I just practice being a good person at heart,” she said. “And that’s the sole meaning of Islam, is like you have to practice being a good person throughout your entire life.”

Shaokat came to the United States only three years ago. She said her arrival to the States brought about an increased awareness of the ways in which her religion is misconstrued by others and said it made her realize she would constantly be battling those stereotypes.

“I had to answer a lot of questions. I had to get into some very awkward conversations, so I mean, it has definitely affected my experience here,” she said. “And to this day, I think that’s something that really, really saddens me: the fact that the world can’t get over the fact that Islam really isn’t what extremists portray it to be.”

When she first arrived at the college, Shaokat said many people were surprised that she was Muslim because she did not fit the stereotypical, perceived appearance of a Muslim woman. She does not cover her head, and she said even wearing jeans and a T-shirt would shock others.

“People in the United States and people here in Ithaca College were used to the image of a Muslim woman being shy and being under the covers and kind of a little more conservative than I was,” she said. “I’ve been just as influenced by Westernized cultures as I have by traditional aspects of my culture. Being a Muslim student on this campus is sometimes a little taxing because you have to go out of your way to explain to people what it’s like to be Muslim and what’s it like to be a Muslim woman.”

At the college, Islam is not its own separate religious entity like Hillel and the Catholic Community. Instead, Islam is part of Muller Chapel’s interfaith community, and every Friday at 1 p.m. the chapel hosts Jumu’ah, the congregational prayer held by Muslims every Friday. The service begins with an open discussion about the religion and is followed by prayer. Jumu’ah is led by retired Dana professor Raquib Zaman.

Junior Arham Muneer, a Muslim student who attends the Friday prayer, said the leader for the service can be anyone who is well-versed in Islam. In other Muslim communities, the prayer leaders in the mosques are individuals who are respected and knowledgeable about the Islamic faith.

Like other religions, an aspect of Islamic law forbids certain foods from being consumed, such as pork and alcohol. The term halal is used to refer to these dishes and specify what foods can be eaten as well as the preparation of those foods. Pork is the only meat forbidden to eat, and in terms of other foods, the source, cause of the animal’s death and how it was processed are also taken into consideration. Muneer said while other Muslims he knows do not necessarily follow halal, he makes the personal choice to make dietary decisions adhering to it. However, he said since many people at the college do not know exactly what halal means, he usually resorts to saying he is a vegetarian when asked if he has any dietary restrictions.

Junior Zamar Malik is also an international student from Pakistan and said he has learned of more resources available for practicing Muslims throughout the Ithaca community, especially at Cornell University.

“I actually spent Ramadan here in Ithaca, and I don’t think it would’ve been possible had I not been going to Cornell every day,” he said. “They were giving us free meals every day.”

As the number of Muslim students continues to grow, Malik said he wants the administration to become more inclusive toward the Muslim community.

“I’ve always felt that we’ve never really been included in anything,” he said. “There’s no inclusivity, and trust me when I say this: There’s a huge amount of Muslim population on this campus. I’ve met them, and I know them.”

Students themselves have taken action to bring more awareness to the Islamic faith. One example is the college’s first Eid Banquet, hosted by the South Asian Students Society Nov. 1 in Emerson Suites.

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From left, junior Lima Hossain, sophomore Anushka Rajbhandari and freshman Aarti Patel attend the South Asian Students Society’s Eid Banquet on Nov. 1. Sam Fuller/The Ithacan

The Eid Banquet is named after the Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Eid is a Muslim festival of family, friends and community. Muneer, who is also a co-president of SASS, said the executive board wanted to turn the event into more of a learning, educational celebration rather than a full religious event.

“The idea of having it on our campus, we’re not trying to make it a religious event. It’s more of like a celebration,” he said. “So we’re trying to get people to know more [about] what Eid is but still celebrate it.”

Sophomore Joseph Fenning is in the process of starting a Muslim community organization, called Alif-Iqra, to educate students on Islam as both a religion and a culture. He said he has approached several professors about his idea and has also collaborated with other students about it. He said he wants the organization be integrated into the community and to include both Muslims and non-Muslims who would educate the campus community on the religion by dispelling stereotypes and correcting misconceptions.

Despite the pocket of security and community within the chapel and clubs like SASS, some Muslim students feel the need to safeguard their faith. Muneer identifies as a Muslim student as well as an international student from Pakistan and said he is wary of sometimes being used as a spokesperson for his identity.

“More often than not, I have to be aware because I feel — and sometimes it’s proven to be true in my interactions with other people on this campus — that I’m sometimes in a position where I’m taken as the representative of my entire country’s population or a representative of Muslims around the world,” he said.

Senior Jihan Moumou also identifies as a Muslim student and said while she has disclosed her religious background with the community of African, Latino, Asian and Native American students, she has never told another student who is not part of the ALANA community.

“The reason why I’ve never told a person that’s non-ALANA is because, from my experience, they haven’t really cared to ask me where I’m from or like what my religion is, so that’s why,” she said. “As in the ALANA community, they actually care about where I’m from, how I practice, am I religious — they actually give you the time of day to get to know you.”

Despite the lack of awareness toward Islam, Shaokat said she feels the college community is generally accepting of her faith. While she personally has not faced any blatantly ignorant interactions with students about Islam, she said most of the students she has personally spoken with have expressed an interest in wanting to learn more about the religion.

“They’ve always wanted to know what Islam is actually like instead of relying on the stereotypes the world’s created,” she said. “In general, everybody here is very accepting. There’s always that want to learn here, which is very, very refreshing.”

Perhaps one of the most widely accepted and most damaging stereotypes about Islam is its suggested promotion of violence, falsely supported by the events of 9/11 and ongoing turmoil across the Middle East. In addition, public reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 129 people have relied on this stereotype of violence for justification, along with exacerbating feelings of Islamophobia, the dislike or prejudice against Islam or Muslims. Following the tragedy, Shaokat said these reactions only further destroy Islam’s already-damaged reputation. With Islam’s being a peaceful religion, she said she hopes people take it upon themselves to educate themselves instead of relying on misconceptions.

“Just know that terrorism doesn’t have a religion,” she said. “Growing up in a Muslim household and as a practicing Muslim, like I couldn’t kill a spider because it was a sin. So you can’t tell me that killing people is the definition of Islam because that’s not what it is.”

Shaokat also said the issue of terrorism cannot be correlated with religion.

“This really isn’t a religious problem … It’s a terrorist problem,” she said. “People all over the world need to understand that you cannot relate these two things. And that’s one of the most detrimental things you can do for the human race, is to mislead the perception of millions and billions of people by constantly forcing them to correlate religion and terrorism.”

Malik said he feels both a sense of pride and shame in his religious identity.

“I feel proud being a Muslim, but at the same time, it comes out to be shameful because the way you are portrayed in the media, because of the way others judge you, others look at you,” he said. “And you are always afraid of being labeled as a terrorist for nothing.”

During the Fall 2013 semester, Malik said he was called a terrorist by a professor. Malik said the interaction reflects poorly on the college. While he chose not to report the incident to the college, he said he believes experiences like this provide a real-life approach. If the college had been a safe and inclusive community, he said he doesn’t know how his experiences would have turned out.

“I think that Ithaca is doing a wonderful job at providing a real-life approach by having racist professors or stuff like that,” he said. “And I think that now I’m very much prepared for the harsh world because Ithaca has been harsh on me that I’m mentally ready for it.”

With so many rampant misconceptions about Muslims and Islam, Malik believes placing all Muslims within the same boat ignores the fact that all Muslims will interpret the religion in their own way.

“Religion is a very personal thing with each and every Muslim,” he said. “You will see Muslims who drink. You will see Muslims who don’t drink. There are conservative Muslims. There are liberal Muslims … And that’s one of the things that I want people to know, is that you cannot judge a Muslim according to Islam.”

But despite the misinformation and miseducation of Islam, both Muneer and Shaokat said they do not personally feel the need to defend themselves or their religion any longer.

“It’s almost patronizing to have to defend my religion because why should I? My religion is my right,” Shaokat said. “I can be who I want. I can believe what I want. It says more about the person being judgmental about a religion than the person being judged or the religion being judged.”

Shaokat said she believes there is significant room for misconceptions to be destroyed and stereotypes to be deconstructed surrounding Islam. And with interactions like what he experienced at the college, Malik said he’s learned to simply shrug them off and instead prove the stereotypes untrue.

“You don’t stop living just because some people hate you,” he said. “Instead, you make it a point to prove those people wrong by being the person they never expected you to be. They expect you to be a terrorist. Instead of falling into their expectations, be what they could never expect you to be. Be the successful one.”

Celisa Calacal can be reached at ccalacal@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @celisa_mia