As the sun sets on a cold October day, rain taps against the windows of the MacDougal Center in the Hall of Graduate Studies. In one corner, 35 umbrellas, jackets, and pairs of soggy shoes lay clustered in a heap. In another, four metal dining hall trays of food fill the room with the smells of keema matter and vegetable korma.
The MacDougal Center is where Yale’s Muslim community has gathered for iftaar, the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Students pray on ivory rugs behind a dark wood panel; as they finish, they tuck into their meals, based on recipes that their mothers sent the dining halls last spring. There are not enough tables for everyone and circles of cross-legged friends form on the floor, chattering through hungry mouthfuls — in English, Arabic, and Urdu.
Until recently, an iftaar meant a bagel grabbed from a dining hall, saved until sunset, and eaten with other students in the prayer room of the Bingham basement. In 2002, the Slifka Center began giving the students prepackaged meals to save for iftaar. But the true upgrade came last year: for the first time, Yale began providing catered meals for the breaking of fast.
The response from the Muslim community was one of gratitude — and shock.
“People were just amazed,” said Ahmed Makani ’07, president of the Muslim Students’ Association. “They were like, ‘Wow, is Yale actually doing this?’ It meant that people on the meal plans were finally getting something for what they were paying for.”
But iftaar is not the only aspect of Muslim life to which Yale is beginning to respond. Halal meat, the only kind allowed for consumption under Islamic law, was introduced into the dining halls this fall. Yale’s first Muslim chaplain was hired this year. And the Ramadan banquet returned to Yale after two years off-campus. At 370 guests, it was the largest celebration the MSA has ever held.
The changes have come swiftly and suddenly after years of efforts. But, at the same time, the Muslim community at Yale has a long way to go. Funding and resources remain low. And so do the numbers of Muslims themselves: Reverend Frederick Streets, Yale University chaplain and senior pastor of the Church of Christ in Yale, said about 150 students and faculty are practicing Muslims. If Islam is the third major religion at Yale, it remains nowhere near the size and visibility of Christianity or Judaism.
But what will get it there, students say, are the qualities already present in the Muslim community: the students’ open-mindedness, commitment and enthusiasm.
When Hasina Mohyuddin ’95 arrived at Yale, she and her Muslim friends faced a major disappointment.
“We all assumed that Yale would have an MSA or ISA, as they were fairly common at major universities,” she wrote in Foundations, a publication put out by the Asian American Students’ Alliance, this fall. “Unfortunately, there was none.”
Harvard’s Islamic Society, on the other hand, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Mohyuddin and others knew that Muslims on campus needed both an official voice for their concerns and a community in which to comfortably practice their faith. Luckily, the paperwork was relatively easy, and in 1991, the Yale Muslim Students’ Association was born.
Getting sustained interest in the group was harder: many students thought you had to be a conservative Muslim to join, Mohyuddin wrote. But that was not true, and the members did not want it to be.
A little more than a decade later, the MSA at Yale has jumped from a handful of members to a group that counts 200 graduate and undergraduate students on its current e-mail list.
Most Muslims — and some non-Muslims — are members of the MSA, students said. They could not name any practicing Muslims who did not participate in the organization in some way, although they guessed there might be one or two.
After all, students said, everyone feels welcome in the MSA. There are Muslims from Turkey and Pakistan, Chicago and California. And while most of the Muslims are Sunni — just as about 80 percent of Muslims worldwide are Sunni — Shiites and others do not feel uncomfortable, students said.
“Sunnis pray with arms folded; I don’t,” said Abbas Hussain ’07, a Shiite Muslim from Pakistan. “But I stand with them, and pray with them, and I’ve never felt [discomfort] … Islam has many different sects, but there has never been a division in the MSA. Whether you are Sunni or Shiite, the MSA is a place where you can constantly defer back to your religion.”
Furthermore, both the very devout and those who are just beginning to be aware of their faith feel welcome at the MSA, said Sohaib Sultan, author of “The Koran for Dummies” and the University’s newly hired Muslim chaplain.
“No one feels intimidated by the organization,” he said.
Camille Gutierrez ’09, who is involved in both the MSA and MEChA, a group representing Mexican American students, agreed. In a speech at the Ramadan banquet, she said she was first apprehensive about joining because she is not as observant as others. Her apprehension soon faded.
“The MSA welcomes me, rather than questions me,” she said.
Even Nate Puksta ’07, a convert to Islam from California, said his recent discovery of faith has not made him feel marginalized by the community.
Although the MSA generally operates harmoniously, occasionally conflict has surfaced over the board’s ethnic homogeneity. A few students said they did not like what they saw as the “usurping” of the MSA by South Asians.
Still, this did not reflect any sort of rift in the group, Hussain said. The dissenting students continue to actively attend MSA events.
But not all MSA’s seem quite so open.
The MSA at Rutgers University, for example, is both diverse and large; the e-mail list has about 350 people, said Mohamed Eisa, a senior who served as last year’s president and is a three-time board member. But Eisa said he does not know any Shiite students, or of any Shiite mosques in the area.
Therefore, he said, the Rutgers MSA follows conservative Sunni teachings and expects its members to do the same. For example, there should be no interaction between the genders, Eisa said. At iftaars, women must sit at tables to the left of the room, men at the right.
“Every once in a while, you’ll see a few brothers and a few sisters talking,” Eisa said. “You can’t pull out a ruler and say, ‘stop doing that,’ but we do everything in our power to prevent that.”
Similarly, the Rutgers MSA tries to prevent its members from what it sees as mistaken deviations from Islamic practices. For example, Eisa said, when cleansing oneself before praying, the water should reach all the way to one’s elbow.
“If you don’t do it completely, then your prayer isn’t going to be counted,” he said.
To let the students know of such mistakes, the Rutgers MSA Board will often plan an upcoming speech — even if another topic was already planned — to address the problem.
The board itself is made up of men and women. Males coordinate for the brothers, and females for the sisters. But usually a man is elected to the position of president, Eisa said.
“In Islam, there are a few teachings and sayings where … they say it’s not recommended for women to be in a position of high power,” he said. “Oftentimes, women think in emotions, and that affects their thinking.”
Eisa estimated that about nine in 10 women in the MSA wear hijab, or a head-covering.
The Yale MSA, however, does not subscribe to a particular school of Islam. Neither does it try to “enforce” teachings, members said.
“Your relationship with God is your own deal,” Makani said. “The MSA is an avenue to meet more people, to learn from them, to make more friends. It is not trying to enforce the practicing of religion.”
Such open-mindedness, yet enthusiasm, came as a surprise to some students. Fatema al-Arayedh ’07, former social chair of the MSA, is from Bahrain. Coming from a Muslim country to a Western university, she said, her expectations of the Yale community were low. And they remained low when she arrived. She said she rarely heard about events or about the MSA.
When Ramadan began, though, she began hearing about iftaars and other activities. As she attended, she said she was struck by two things. The first was the strength of the Muslim community. On the other hand, the second was the noticeably weak infrastructure supporting Muslim life at Yale.
“Everyone is so active and open-minded; they really embrace the Muslim culture and the Muslim essence,” al-Arayedh said. “But the thing that I felt was lacking was a lot of the facilities needed, a lot of the resources needed, for the organization to function.”
Students said comparing Yale’s resources to other universities was especially upsetting. At Harvard, although the university does not pay for the nightly dinners, the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) has enough funding to pay for the meals itself. HIS President Khalid Yasin ’07 estimated that the association has between $4,000 and $5,000, most of it from donations.
One dining hall offered Halal meat once a week from 1994 to 1998, and then again after 2002. All the dining halls have offered halal hotdogs and hamburgers since 2001, Yasin said.
For meat to be considered halal, the animal’s blood must be drained when it is slaughtered.
Although many other schools offered more resources, Muslim students at colleges everywhere face the same needs: more recognition and more resources, particularly larger prayer spaces and more food options. Even at Harvard, students received the option of a partial-term bill rebate for Ramadan in 2004 — the same year Yale began offering hot meals to Muslim students. And, as at Yale, daily Friday prayers at Harvard are held in a 15-by-15-square-foot room in the basement of a freshman dorm.
The problem at Yale and other schools is two-fold, students said. Muslims remain a minority on most campuses, which means that their concerns are typically not top priorities for the administration. And small alumni bases lead to less funding.
“We still don’t have those well established, comfortable alums that can easily supply the association,” al-Arayedh said.
As a result, donations remain low. During the last Ramadan, Makani said, six alumni donated about $800; another alum donated $400, and the sum was matched by Yale. That was a “decent” year, he said.
This year, all the donations to the MSA are going to a relief fund to support the victims of October’s South Asian earthquake.
Students said that one of the MSA’s top priorities is to build more ties with alumni. Last year, the MSA created a chair for the alumni network. The board is planning an alumni reunion for the spring.
MSA members are also concerned that Yale is not admitting enough Muslims to keep the organization’s size up. Although the MSA has grown, the number of incoming students who identify themselves as Muslims fluctuates from year to year. In 2004, there were 22 Muslim freshmen.
This year, Makani said, there were no more than five.
Religious beliefs are not considered in the admissions process, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said in a statement. Students are not asked to identify their religion on their applications.
“With respect to international applications in general, we are still in the opening stages of making Yale better known,” the statement said.
Despite their variable numbers, students said those Muslims who do come to Yale seem to be more involved and active in the MSA than ever before. The changes that have occurred for Muslim students are due to two things, they said: the strengthened voice and leadership of the community, and the administration’s increased willingness to listen.
Al-Arayedh attributed many of the recent changes to the Committee on Religious Life at Yale, which delivered a report last year on the opportunities available to students to practice their faith.
“I heard that other students had tried in the past to approach the administration,” al-Arayedh said. “They said it was very difficult to actually contact them and get your concerns through.”
But the Committee on Religious Life at Yale allowed al-Arayedh and others to present their concerns and then sent them straight to Yale President Richard Levin.
At the same time, the Muslim students also mobilized. They created a committee for halal food at Yale, lobbying the administration to get halal food in the dining halls.
The next big task, students said, will be to get a larger prayer space. The space in the Bingham basement, across from the laundry room, cramps the 30 to 40 students who come to pray.
With the challenges the Muslim community at Yale faces, having any sort of Slifka-like center for Muslims at Yale seems a long way off, students and administrators said.
Even so, the Jewish community was once much like the Muslims in terms of the problems it faced, said James Ponet, the Jewish chaplain at Yale.
When he first arrived at Yale 25 years ago, he said, the Jews struck him much as the Muslims do now.
“They were conscious, they were active, and they were communally invisible,” he said. “While there were Jews here, there was no public indication.”
The Jewish students faced a lack of resources and of vocal leadership, he said.
As Sultan is the only Muslim chaplain, Ponet was the only Jewish rabbi. As the Muslims now have a prayer space in Bingham, it used to belong to the Jews. (“It was a soggy place,” Ponet said. “When it rained, we got mushrooms under our desks.”)
Ponet led the struggle for change. The culmination came in 1993, with the $6.5 million construction of the Slifka Center: a four-story building with a library, kosher dining hall, reading room, classrooms, art gallery and office spaces.
The center was modeled after the St. Thomas More house, Ponet said. The Thomas More house offers not only religious services, but a community center and a way for those of other faiths to learn about Catholics.
Catholics had been a “despised minority” at Yale, Ponet said, citing essays written by William F. Buckley ’50 on his experience as a Catholic at an originally Puritan institution. “But they established themselves visibly and with dignity on campus.”
Similarly, Ponet said, the Jewish community had to do the same — and so do the Muslims.
But when he approached Jewish alumni for donations, he said some were worried that the Slifka Center would “ghettoize” Yale.
His response was that the purpose of the Slifka Center would be inclusion, not exclusion. It would be a way for non-Jews and Jews alike to participate in Jewish philosophy, to eat Jewish food, to celebrate Jewish holidays.
And, he said, that has been the result.
“What’s beautiful about it — and what should serve as a model to other organizations — is that it is a place for all of Yale,” he said. “It was to serve, and it does serve, for all of Yale.”
But without alumni donations, the center never could have been built. The Jewish community was lucky, Ponet said. Muslims, it seems, will have to wait for some time to have the same extensive, affluent alumni base to provide such funding.
And Sultan’s hiring is a boon for Muslim students, though Ponet pointed out that his part-time status is unfortunate, in contrast to Ponet’s full-time status when he first arrived. Sultan is also the chaplain of Trinity College. He works at Yale only 10 hours per week.
As Ponet speaks, the smell of kosher food drifts up from the Slifka dining hall into his office. Surrounded by crammed bookshelves, he sits before a fireplace stocked with cedar logs. Rain trickles down a large window looking over Wall Street.
Sultan has no such office. In fact, he shares space with other chaplains in the Bingham basement. He is considered a fellow to the Yale Chaplain’s Office, not a University employee, Streets said.
Hopefully, Streets said, a full-time associate chaplain will arrive at Yale in January. She will be doing multi-faith work, he said, but she happens to be Muslim.
In the meantime, Ponet and others said, the Slifka Center has opened its doors to Muslims. And the MSA has invited Jews into their own community.
Before Yale began catering iftaars, it was the Slifka Center that provided packaged halal meals for fasting Muslim students. Iftaars are also held there for anyone, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise, who wants to come.
Ponet remembered one iftaar in particular. It was organized after the Intifada was rekindled after the Camp David negotiations in 2000, he said. A problem arose. An Israeli flag hangs above the entrance to Slifka, and a few Muslim students said they did not think they could walk under an Israeli flag to attend the iftaar.
But they wanted to come, and the Jewish students wanted them there, Ponet said. The Muslims worked through their feelings and came in through the front. The iftaar successfully provided a space for Jewish-Muslim dialogue.
Other events have shown strong Jewish-Muslim solidarity. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Jewish and Muslim students gathered on Cross Campus, reading excerpts from both the Torah and Quran. In 2002, students formed a group called Jews and Muslims that began as an attempt to foster discussion between the two religions, co-founder Aatif Iqbal ’05 said.
“People were constantly talking past each other,” he said. “In YDN op-eds, day in, day out, someone writes an article trashing something, and someone else writes a response trashing the original article. It seemed like the level of discussion could be improved.”
By discussing everything from religious to political topics — two weeks ago, Makani said, he went to a JAM session where they spoke about the Israeli departure from Gaza — JAM helped the two communities improve relations and understanding.
In fact, some students said, the Muslims seem relatively closer to the Jews than to any other religious group.
“We do a lot more with Slifka Center and the Jewish students than Christians,” said Shobi Ahmed, MED ’06. “That’s kind of a blind spot.”
But the MSA is actively reaching out to other groups, both religious and cultural, members said. There is a Muslim representative to the Multi-Faith Council, a student group that meets regularly with the Yale chaplains. The MSA has invited not only Hillel, but the Asian American Cultural Center, South Asian Society, and Students Take Action Now to iftaars.
Even so, students and administrators said, there needs to be more interfaith dialogue and relationship-building.
“I expected that I’d be getting an invite to be on a panel every day from other groups,” Sultan said. “At an institution like Yale, I expected that much more than I have found.”
As the new chaplain, Sultan said, he is trying to reach out to other religions. He has already met with Streets to discuss a panel on “Critical Conversations on Faith.”
Dawood Yasin, the imam of the Masjid al-Islam and a former Yale Arabic teaching assistant, is also working on building relationships with various religious groups. He called his relationship with Streets particularly close.
But true discourse about faith between religions is difficult, Yasin said.
“We’re not on a level of maturity yet within our own selves to be able to facilitate discussions such as that,” he said. “We still have a lot of stereotypes and a lot of misconceptions about one another that we need to overcome.”
As the Muslim community grows, it should be able to focus more on building interfaith discourse, members said.
“In past years, the big thing was to focus on the people in the MSA itself, because we’ve been a very small group,” said Altaf Saadi ’08, political action chair of the MSA. “Now, we’re at a point where we’re able to focus outside of our own community … This wasn’t possible in previous years.”
One of the MSA’s main goals, members said, is to increase awareness of Islam at Yale. Beyond open iftaars and the Ramadan Banquet, the MSA holds Islamic Awareness Week, offering speakers, panels and screenings.
While there is a widespread ignorance about Islam, students said Yale is a generally tolerant campus.
Before Makani left home — and after it took him a year to get his visa — his parents told him to keep a low profile and not to join any Islamic associations. After all, he said, the only images of Muslims in America that his family saw in Pakistan were of Guantanamo Bay detainees. But once he arrived on campus, he said, he realized he could be open about his faith.
Now president of the MSA, he has yet to tell his parents. They would worry too much.
Yasin said such concerns are widespread among Muslims. It might even be one reason why university MSA’s have trouble recruiting funds from alumni.
“Donations are scaring people right now,” Yasin said. “Look at how many organizations have been shut down [by the government].”
But even as Sept. 11 made it, in many ways, harder to be a Muslim in America, it also brought the Muslim community together. American Muslims seemed to reconnect to their heritage, many students said. Some said that may be a reason for the MSA’s resurgence.
While Muslims seem to face less condemnation at Yale than at other campuses, Muslims at Yale still struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs with a college environment filled with temptations.
“College is a critical time to develop,” Sultan said. “It’s a time when students start questioning their faith. Questions start to arise in your mind that were never asked before.”
His worry, Sultan said, is that there is not enough guidance for Muslim students to seek answers. He would like to see more classes on Islam geared toward Muslim students, he said, to grapple with questions of theology and religious laws.
Furthermore, said Yasin, the college environment is not necessarily conducive to the devout lifestyle.
“If you are trying to abstain from alcohol, drinking is everywhere,” Yasin said. “And modesty is hard because there is an atmosphere of youth liking to have fun.”
Of course, many students overcome such challenges. The MSA helps. By organizing social events like barbeques, hikes to East Rock, study breaks, and girls’ nights, it provides students a way to have fun without drinking — if they so choose.
And it gives Muslim students a way to reconnect to their faith and culture.
“When you’re so far from your home and religion, you do drift away,” Hussain said.
Back in the MacDougal Center, students are beginning to trickle out, back into the wet, cold New Haven rain. On their way out, they grab cardboard boxes of Crave Rolls Zesty Chicken, microwaveable either as a midnight halal snack or before-sunrise meal.
As the mound of umbrellas and shoes disappears, three trays of steaming food still remain. Sue Bobbins, the dining hall worker who brought the meals tonight, shakes her head. “This is a small group,” she says. “Usually I don’t have nothing left.”
At the other side of the room, two graduate students put down their books and wander over. They sniff the air and nod.
They may not be Muslim, but they are hungry. And they are welcome to eat.