A Soul-Search for Islamic Society

Muslim students seek to carve identity in a post-Sept. 11 world

Michael J. Sandel, who teaches the popular moral reasoning course “Justice,” recently posed an essay question to his students: Imagine you are a soldier behind enemy lines on a secret mission and unarmed civilians discover you. Should you kill them?

Students struggled with the issue, some looking to philosophy and international law for answers. But a small group tackled the dilemma in a different framework.

Muslim students in the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) met for a halaqa, or discussion circle, to debate Sandel’s question through a religious lens.

“Taking a life is one of the biggest crimes in Islam, so we looked at it through various interpretations within Islamic law,” said HIS Vice President Hasan K. Siddiqi ’08.

The halaqa provides a small window into the larger story of HIS, a religious group that stands at a crossroads amid the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 attacks and what members see as pervasive cultural ignorance at Harvard about Islam.

Conversations with HIS members over the past month revealed that the organization is engaged in intense soul-searching. The group remains committed to its role as a support system for Harvard’s Muslim students, while also grappling with how to heighten its activism to defend what members believe is a much misunderstood faith.

As it looks forward, HIS aims to heighten its visibility on campus by possibly building an Islamic student center and recruiting more Muslims to Harvard. The group has also debated weighing in on Muslim political causes, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We have to become more active and more vocal because Islam is under attack across the world,” said A. Rauda Tellawi ’08, who became the group’s second female president last year. “It’s especially important at Harvard, where we have some of the future leaders of this country.”


HIS, which boasts 146 members, has a two-fold mission: provide for the religious and social wellbeing of the Muslim community and spread awareness about Islam on campus.

Founded in 1955, the group sponsors a prayer service every Friday, maintains a musalla, or prayer space, in the basement of Canaday, and organizes the breaking of the fast called an iftar each night during the holy month of Ramadan.

Members say the organization plays a critical role in their religious lives and often provides the core of their social network.

But since Sept. 11, HIS members have grown frustrated by what they see as a cloud of misconceptions about Islam. Members point to a string of anti-Muslim incidents in the last several years that they say were not handled properly by Harvard and highlight a need to educate the campus community about Islam.

A flurry of controversy emerged in 2002, when former HIS president Zayed M. Yasin ’02 proposed “American Jihad” as the title of his Commencement speech. Students protested Yasin’s use of the word “jihad,” and Yasin later modified the title to “Of Faith and Citizenship: My American Jihad.”

But critics of the address decried Yasin’s right to speak at Commencement altogether, pointing to his support while HIS president of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development—an NGO which the U.S. State Department alleges has ties to Hamas, a Palestinian militant movement.

Though the speech went forward, HIS members criticized the administration’s lukewarm defense of Yasin.

More recently, a former HIS member wearing a headscarf was the victim of a verbal assault when a group of women allegedly screamed a cultural slur at her in 2005. While the Harvard Foundation, which promotes cultural pluralism on campus, met with the student, several HIS affiliates said they were not satisfied with the response.

“This was a hate crime. The community was worried and felt a real threat. There wasn’t a call. The administration did not express concern for our safety,” said HIS President Shaheer A. Rizvi ’08.

Several months later, HIS members grew upset after The Harvard Salient republished Danish cartoons that had sparked protests across the Muslim world for their parodies of the Prophet Muhammad.

HIS members criticized an e-mail sent to the Salient by Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd that warned that “some segments of the campus and surrounding communities may be sufficiently upset by the publication of the cartoons that they may become dangerous.”

Kidd later formally apologized for the e-mail, saying it was not her intent to characterize the Muslim community as dangerous.


HIS members praise Harvard’s recent efforts to make campus a more comfortable environment for Muslims. Over the past few years, dining halls have increased the availability of food that conforms to Muslim dietary laws, the College renovated the Canaday musalla, and administrators have heard student petitions for time to pray during January exams.

Members say the group’s relationship with administrators has improved over the past few years.

When Hebah M. Ismail ’06, a graduate adviser to HIS, first arrived at Harvard as an undergrad in 2002, discussions with high-level Harvard officials were rare, she said.

“There was a lot of tension at that time,” said Ismail, now a first-year student at the Law School. “But since then, we’ve had very good ties.”

Nevertheless, Muslims on campus report friction with some faculty members and bemoan the lack of courses about Islam at Harvard.

Indo-Muslim languages and culture professor Ali S. Asani ’77, who teaches the popular course Foreign Cultures 70, “Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies,” described a “religious and cultural illiteracy” about Islam at Harvard, which he said extends to segments of the faculty and administration. He said students have complained to him about discrimination and prejudice from professors.

“It’s hidden, not overt, but it’s there,” said Asani, who serves on the faculty advisory committee to the Harvard Foundation.

Kidd said she has not encountered student concerns about cultural insensitivity toward Muslims, but she said College officials and advisers are available to hear complaints.


Members say HIS has shifted its focus in the past five years to building stronger internal bonds. By sponsoring more social events and informal gatherings, HIS has become what many Muslim students call a “comfort zone” and a “family.”

“It’s very much a social network,” said Sarah H. Arshad ’09, who helped coordinate social events last year and identifies ethnically as Pakistani.

“I need people to hang out with on a Friday night when other people are drinking and doing other things I can’t do,” she said, referring to the Islamic prohibition on alcohol.

But while HIS provides an important community for some, members said they want to be more inclusive in the future. They hope to bring more Muslims to Harvard and are exploring the option of building an Islamic center on campus.

Some students who identify as Muslim choose not to participate in HIS because they are intimidated or discouraged by the group’s deeply religious image, members said.

“It troubles me when people don’t feel accepted within the Muslim community,” Rizvi said. “We want HIS to be a comfortable place for Muslims to come together.”

The group’s ethnic make-up is currently heavily South Asian, a region home to some of the largest Muslim populations in the world in countries like Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

Chaima A. Bouhlel ’11, a Tunisian expatriate who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said she had concerns about joining HIS.

“I’ve never really interacted with South Asians, so I don’t really know how they think about Islam,” Bouhlel said. “I thought because I come from Saudi Arabia, they may look at me in a certain way. But it’s not like that at all.”

This year, HIS members are launching efforts to recruit students over winter break at mosques and Islamic schools in their hometowns. In the future, members hope to raise funds to travel to lower-income Muslim communities in the United States and Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia which they are underrepresented at Harvard.

The group also hopes to build an Islamic center that would include a mosque and dining area to cater to Muslim students and serve as a resource about Islam for the Harvard community. The building would be similar to existing religious centers, including Hillel and the Catholic Student Center.


HIS members report the group still feels the reverberations of the 2002 “American Jihad” controversy, especially the accusations that HIS supported an organization reportedly linked to Hamas.

Tellawi, the former HIS president, said she believed HIS grew more cautious after the shake-up.

“[The accusation] stopped all HIS political activities because it was seen as disrupting our relationship with the outside community and sometimes even within the Muslim community,” she said.

Recently, HIS members have debated whether to reengage in politics and take a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The group ultimately decided this year to abstain from organized political involvement after concerns arose that activism—even concerning what are seen as “obvious” Muslim issues—would devalue the range of views in the Islamic world.

“In a case like Israel-Palestine, there is a diversity of opinions about what should be done. One state? Two states?” said HIS member Na’eel A. Cajee ’10, who plans to travel to Israel during intersession. “But it is very important for individual members to be involved. When people are dying, you can’t just stand around.”

Some within HIS see their organization as sowing seeds for a stronger and more integrated Muslim community in the United States.

“HIS is nurturing future Muslim leaders—not necessarily religious leaders, but leaders who are informed and motivated by their Islamic identity,” Rizvi said. “It gives me hope for the American Muslim community.”

Classical art and archaeology professor David G. Mitten, faculty adviser to HIS of 12 years, said he believes interfaith collaboration underpins the country’s future and proudly cited the organization’s connections with Hillel, the Interfaith Council, and other student religious groups.

“There are differences of opinion and emotions get high, but several more generations of Muslims go through Harvard and elsewhere, and we’re going to see change,” said Mitten, who converted to Islam 38 years ago. “Islam will move into the center of things like Christianity and Judaism, and there will be more understanding and cooperation.”