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Harvard Muslims Seeking Respect

News Feature

By Kevin S. Davis

Earlier this month, Irfan Siddiqi '98 left his room before dawn, heading to the basement of Canaday E for the first of his five required daily prayers to Allah.

Siddiqi knew the way to the cramped, Spartan prayer room in the Canaday basement where he prays each day.

But when he arrived, he and several other practicing Muslims who use the Canaday mosque found that the locks had been changed, and no one could get in.

"When they changed the locks in the basement," Siddiqi says, "we were locked out for a considerable amount of time."

In fact, it took several trips to the Facilities Maintenance department before he could get a working key.

That's often the way it goes for the approximately 500 Muslims enrolled in the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Despite the fact that they represent one of the fastest growing creeds in the College, Islamic students say the Harvard administration still doesn't take their concerns or religious needs seriously.

For example, the small Canaday mosque is the seventh location Muslim undergraduates have been forced into in the past six months, according to two students' count. Students have had to use locations from the Straus Hall common room to Memorial Hall to distant Vanserg Hall, which is 20 minutes' walk from the Yard.

"We need to come a long way," Siddiqi says. "The University needs to be more sensitive to our needs."

Acceptance on Campus

Mohammed N. Khan '95, president of the Harvard Islamic Society, says one of the biggest problems facing Muslims in America stems from images of Middle East violence in the 1980s.

"The stereotypical image is of a terrorist blowing up the World Trade Center," Khan says. "There has to be a clear separation between the politics of a nation and the religion itself."

Despite the stereotype of "terrorism" in America, Khan says that Harvard students are usually open and understanding about his religion.

"In my discussions [at Harvard], I haven't come across too many misconceptions," Khan says.

Uzma Ahmad '96 of Kirkland House says she believes that Harvard's emphasis on diversity has helped improve relations with the student body and within the Islamic community on campus.

"I find a lot of students who are very interested in what it means to be a Muslim," Ahmad says.

Ahmad says the Islamic community at Harvard is very diverse within itself, with believers of many nationalities and races. Encountering such diversity within her faith, she says, has helped her "grow a lot as a Muslim."

The daily and Friday prayer schedules of Muslims often seem rigorous to outsiders. Muslims are required to pray in solitude five times each day, and attend a prayer service on Fridays.

But Ahmad says it is possible to balance academics with religious devotion.

"It's much more natural that you would think," she says. "It just takes a little bit of planning. That's where the Muslim community comes in."

Khairul H. Jamalludin '98, who moved to America last year from Malaysia, says she saw prejudice against Muslims in the United States.

"Back when I was in Indiana, my friends got harassed for wearing their head coverings," Jamalludin says.

But Jamalludin says she has never encountered anything similar from other Harvard students. "Since the student population is so diverse, it's not a problem," she says.

Another first-year, Leila S. Bham of Matthews Hall, says she felt pressured to conform to Catholicism at her parochial high school in Maryland.

"Participation in religious activity at school was difficult," Bham says. "I didn't think the non-Christians should have to participate."

"Simply because Harvard is non-denominational, it seems much more diverse, and much broader in the spectrum of different religions and ideas," Bham says.

The Islamic Society

Many of Harvard's Muslim students are members of the Harvard Islamic Society, which says it educates about Islam and provides for the religious and social needs of Muslims on campus.

In addition to a bi-monthly newsletter, the Islamic Society provides space for daily prayers and a weekly service for Muslim students.

This November, the society sponsored an Islamic Awareness Week to promote an accurate awareness of the faith.

The week featured a panel discussion on elements of the Islamic faith and the screening of "The Message," a film chronicling the life of the prophet Mohammed.

"I think the response was fairly positive," says Khan, the organization's president.

"We wanted people to realize that this [the faith] is the central core of Islam, and the rest of Islam is drawn from that," Khan says.

Islamic Society members say there is a need for more understanding and education about Islam.

"We all respect each others' religions, but I think people would like to learn a little bit more about what we do," says Aasma A. Khandekar '96.

Khandekar says she would like the College to offer more courses about Islam and Muslim culture.

She also says there is a need for more campus-wide recognition of Islamic holidays and traditions.

"We're leading a student life, but at the same time there's something bigger out there that we're trying to be a part of," Khandekar says.

Ahmad says the Islamic Society helped her in the transition to college life by connecting her with classmates who shared her beliefs.

"Your community sort of substitutes for your family," she says.

Working With the Administration

While Harvard undergraduates have been very receptive to Islamic students on campus, some Muslims say the administration has not listened to their needs and concerns.

Prayers, which are required five times a day, are done in solitude and can usually be worked around class schedules.

On Fridays, however, Muslims are expected to congregate for weekly prayer services from 1 to 2 p.m., often causing difficulty for students with conflicting classes.

"What people have had to do is totally skip the classes and try to get notes from other students," Khan says. "If it were possible for the University not to schedule classes from 1 to 2 on Fridays, it would be a big help."

Khan says other colleges and universities, including at least one other Ivy League school, already have policies banning class during the Friday prayer time.

In addition, Harvard's three-hour final exams make it impossible for observant Muslims to take a final without leaving for at least 15 minutes in the middle to pray.

"In the past, students have asked professors to be excused [from the exam] to pray," Khan says. "Many students take the time to pray somewhere in the building."

Muslims have also been trying to find a place to hold daily and Friday prayers on campus. Up to 150 students are currently squeezed into the two approximately 15 square foot rooms in the basement of Canaday E, surrounded by water pipes and dorm noises.

"You've got to pray in a basement," Jamalludin says. "That's not very nice. It's definitely not big enough."

"The room in Canaday E is almost impossible to get to," adds Siddiqi, who says he has been locked out several times.

"We'd like a permanent space, or at least someplace we have some attachment to," says Islamic Society vice president Mohammed Asmal '95.

Asmal says the society would like a space that could comfortably hold 150 students for prayer, along with office and library space and an ablution facility.

"We've been working towards [this goal], but the process has been very slow with the University," Asmal says. "The worst trouble we've had has been with the administration, in fact."

Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III says that while the University will work with the Muslim group, it will be the organization's responsibility to find a new facility with their own funds.

"The Islamic Society faces the challenge of increasing population," Epps says, "and typically the way religious communities have met that challenge is to find space off campus to rent."

Epps says the space in Canaday E is too small for the crowds at Friday prayer.

"For the moment it is [sufficient], but not in the long run," Epps says. "We've been discussing a larger space and at the moment they're working with the University Committee on Religion to address that proposal."

Dietary Concerns

Muslims have also been trying to get Harvard Dining Services to provide meals that meet their dietary needs.

"I spent most of my first year eating at Hillel," Khandekar says. "In effect, all of my board money was going to waste."

Siddiqi says he persuaded Dining Services to prepare Halal food for him at the Freshman Union this year.

"I'm the first one to do this," he says, "and hopefully they'll expand it."

Siddiqi says Halal, a special form of dietary restrictions, is "a necessary part of the religion."

Without the special preparation, Siddiqi either has to eat vegetarian meals or go to Hillel.

But Khandekar says she has to be very cautious eating at the dining halls.

"A lot of times, Dining Services will cook with alcohol, and by intuition we have to ask about the preparation," she says.

"I am ready and waiting for them to expand [Halal food] to at least one upper-class dining hall," Khandekar says.

But many Muslim students are skeptical that the University will move to meet their needs anytime soon.

"We've been getting a lot of runaround," Jamalluddin says. "They say they're doing a lot, but we're not very high on their list of priorities."CrimsonAllison WordbergCambridge resident MUSTAFA NUYIBAD

Acceptance on Campus

Mohammed N. Khan '95, president of the Harvard Islamic Society, says one of the biggest problems facing Muslims in America stems from images of Middle East violence in the 1980s.

"The stereotypical image is of a terrorist blowing up the World Trade Center," Khan says. "There has to be a clear separation between the politics of a nation and the religion itself."

Despite the stereotype of "terrorism" in America, Khan says that Harvard students are usually open and understanding about his religion.

"In my discussions [at Harvard], I haven't come across too many misconceptions," Khan says.

Uzma Ahmad '96 of Kirkland House says she believes that Harvard's emphasis on diversity has helped improve relations with the student body and within the Islamic community on campus.

"I find a lot of students who are very interested in what it means to be a Muslim," Ahmad says.

Ahmad says the Islamic community at Harvard is very diverse within itself, with believers of many nationalities and races. Encountering such diversity within her faith, she says, has helped her "grow a lot as a Muslim."

The daily and Friday prayer schedules of Muslims often seem rigorous to outsiders. Muslims are required to pray in solitude five times each day, and attend a prayer service on Fridays.

But Ahmad says it is possible to balance academics with religious devotion.

"It's much more natural that you would think," she says. "It just takes a little bit of planning. That's where the Muslim community comes in."

Khairul H. Jamalludin '98, who moved to America last year from Malaysia, says she saw prejudice against Muslims in the United States.

"Back when I was in Indiana, my friends got harassed for wearing their head coverings," Jamalludin says.

But Jamalludin says she has never encountered anything similar from other Harvard students. "Since the student population is so diverse, it's not a problem," she says.

Another first-year, Leila S. Bham of Matthews Hall, says she felt pressured to conform to Catholicism at her parochial high school in Maryland.

"Participation in religious activity at school was difficult," Bham says. "I didn't think the non-Christians should have to participate."

"Simply because Harvard is non-denominational, it seems much more diverse, and much broader in the spectrum of different religions and ideas," Bham says.

The Islamic Society

Many of Harvard's Muslim students are members of the Harvard Islamic Society, which says it educates about Islam and provides for the religious and social needs of Muslims on campus.

In addition to a bi-monthly newsletter, the Islamic Society provides space for daily prayers and a weekly service for Muslim students.

This November, the society sponsored an Islamic Awareness Week to promote an accurate awareness of the faith.

The week featured a panel discussion on elements of the Islamic faith and the screening of "The Message," a film chronicling the life of the prophet Mohammed.

"I think the response was fairly positive," says Khan, the organization's president.

"We wanted people to realize that this [the faith] is the central core of Islam, and the rest of Islam is drawn from that," Khan says.

Islamic Society members say there is a need for more understanding and education about Islam.

"We all respect each others' religions, but I think people would like to learn a little bit more about what we do," says Aasma A. Khandekar '96.

Khandekar says she would like the College to offer more courses about Islam and Muslim culture.

She also says there is a need for more campus-wide recognition of Islamic holidays and traditions.

"We're leading a student life, but at the same time there's something bigger out there that we're trying to be a part of," Khandekar says.

Ahmad says the Islamic Society helped her in the transition to college life by connecting her with classmates who shared her beliefs.

"Your community sort of substitutes for your family," she says.

Working With the Administration

While Harvard undergraduates have been very receptive to Islamic students on campus, some Muslims say the administration has not listened to their needs and concerns.

Prayers, which are required five times a day, are done in solitude and can usually be worked around class schedules.

On Fridays, however, Muslims are expected to congregate for weekly prayer services from 1 to 2 p.m., often causing difficulty for students with conflicting classes.

"What people have had to do is totally skip the classes and try to get notes from other students," Khan says. "If it were possible for the University not to schedule classes from 1 to 2 on Fridays, it would be a big help."

Khan says other colleges and universities, including at least one other Ivy League school, already have policies banning class during the Friday prayer time.

In addition, Harvard's three-hour final exams make it impossible for observant Muslims to take a final without leaving for at least 15 minutes in the middle to pray.

"In the past, students have asked professors to be excused [from the exam] to pray," Khan says. "Many students take the time to pray somewhere in the building."

Muslims have also been trying to find a place to hold daily and Friday prayers on campus. Up to 150 students are currently squeezed into the two approximately 15 square foot rooms in the basement of Canaday E, surrounded by water pipes and dorm noises.

"You've got to pray in a basement," Jamalludin says. "That's not very nice. It's definitely not big enough."

"The room in Canaday E is almost impossible to get to," adds Siddiqi, who says he has been locked out several times.

"We'd like a permanent space, or at least someplace we have some attachment to," says Islamic Society vice president Mohammed Asmal '95.

Asmal says the society would like a space that could comfortably hold 150 students for prayer, along with office and library space and an ablution facility.

"We've been working towards [this goal], but the process has been very slow with the University," Asmal says. "The worst trouble we've had has been with the administration, in fact."

Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III says that while the University will work with the Muslim group, it will be the organization's responsibility to find a new facility with their own funds.

"The Islamic Society faces the challenge of increasing population," Epps says, "and typically the way religious communities have met that challenge is to find space off campus to rent."

Epps says the space in Canaday E is too small for the crowds at Friday prayer.

"For the moment it is [sufficient], but not in the long run," Epps says. "We've been discussing a larger space and at the moment they're working with the University Committee on Religion to address that proposal."

Dietary Concerns

Muslims have also been trying to get Harvard Dining Services to provide meals that meet their dietary needs.

"I spent most of my first year eating at Hillel," Khandekar says. "In effect, all of my board money was going to waste."

Siddiqi says he persuaded Dining Services to prepare Halal food for him at the Freshman Union this year.

"I'm the first one to do this," he says, "and hopefully they'll expand it."

Siddiqi says Halal, a special form of dietary restrictions, is "a necessary part of the religion."

Without the special preparation, Siddiqi either has to eat vegetarian meals or go to Hillel.

But Khandekar says she has to be very cautious eating at the dining halls.

"A lot of times, Dining Services will cook with alcohol, and by intuition we have to ask about the preparation," she says.

"I am ready and waiting for them to expand [Halal food] to at least one upper-class dining hall," Khandekar says.

But many Muslim students are skeptical that the University will move to meet their needs anytime soon.

"We've been getting a lot of runaround," Jamalluddin says. "They say they're doing a lot, but we're not very high on their list of priorities."CrimsonAllison WordbergCambridge resident MUSTAFA NUYIBAD

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