There are often crowds on the Widener steps on sunny Friday afternoons, but this month, they won’t just be clusters of tourists. This April, which is Islam Awareness Month, at exactly 1:03 p.m. each Friday, students of all faiths, opinions, and walks of life come together at Widener for Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer.
What is the Adhan? Omar A. Khoshafa ’16 explains, “The Adhan begins with four declarations that God is great, and that Muhammed is the messenger of God. It entreats you to come to good work and come to prayer.” According to Khoshafa, the concept of prayer has a very specific significance in Arabic. “It’s not the kind of prayer where you ask for something, like good exam scores, it’s more of a connection with God,” says Khoshafa.
Muslims, who pray five times daily, have chosen to do so on the Widener steps this month as an interfaith gesture. “These days the Adhan is portrayed in a negative manner. It’s associated with violence and terrorism, but our goal in doing the Adhan in the Yard is to say, ‘Hey, look! It’s not scary! Come learn what the Adhan actually means,’” says Muneeb Ahmed ’14, Vice President of the Harvard Islamic Society. “At one point, in the middle of this call to prayer, we had a circle of people standing. They were standing in respect, and we thought, we’ve accomplished our goal.”
Throughout April, the Harvard Islamic Society will be hosting events ranging from famous guest speakers to a poetry slam to engage people of all (or no) faiths in an open-minded conversation about Islam. “Islam sometimes has negative things associated with it, like violence and terrorism, but that’s not the true religion,” says Khoshafa. “It’s about peace and spirituality.”
“We have people with all sorts of opinions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and political views,” Ahmed says of the Muslim community at Harvard. “It’s a very diverse community, just like Harvard itself.” The Harvard Islamic Society consists of over 100 members, 40 to 50 of which are undergraduates who meet for prayer, dinner, and conversation on a weekly basis.
Islam Awareness Month may be the time when the group is most visible, but the Society remains an active community throughout the year. It hosts weekly halal dinners in Adams and Dunster Houses on Mondays and Thursdays and after Friday prayer. The Society also holds weekly Spirituality Nights on Fridays, which welcomes students of all faiths to discuss the Koran, the Bible, or anything spiritual.
“I’ve heard people say the Harvard Muslim community is very closed,” says Ahmed. “We’re very tight-knit, but I think ‘closed’ would be an incorrect assumption, because we accept people of all faiths and, within our faith, people of all opinions.”
Ahmed stresses the importance of combatting assumptions in favor of active inquiry. “If Islam Awareness Month leads to more questions, that’s good,” he says.
Harvard’s Islamic Awareness Month showcases high profile speakers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, like Imam Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center and former TED speaker Lesley Hazelton. Throughout the month, the Harvard Islamic Society also invites students of all faiths to hands-on activities, including a poetry night, a study break, and a dinner.
The study break welcomes all Harvard undergraduates to come experience what Ahmed calls a “display of Islamic culture.” Instead of speakers, the study break will be more social, and have hands-on booths, a great way to see what Ahmed describes as “the rich history and art that are inherent in Islam.”
The theme of the Society’s poetry night is “Express Your Spirituality!” “Spirituality transcends all faiths,” says Khoshafa. Any form of art, poetry, or spoken word is accepted.
“Last year we had Hebrew poems, Arabic poems, and even a rap song, all different types of things,” says Ahmed. “Whatever brings you closer to God, that’s the theme of it. Rapping brings you closer to God? That’s great.”
The month will close with the Harvard Islamic Society’s Spring Dinner, which mirrors the society’s other dinners in the fall.
The speaker will not be a member of the Harvard Islamic community. Instead, the Islamic Society has invited Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and co-House Master of Lowell, Diana L. Eck. “She is director of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, and I think in choosing her we’ve made a statement that the conversation between faiths doesn’t end on April 30,” says Khoshafa. “It should be a continuous conversation that ends in people appreciating other faiths, and coming to real tolerance and depth and understanding.”