Elegant hanging lights and lines of flags were the backdrop to the festivities in a packed Commons at Schwarzman Center Tuesday evening, as over 500 students, faculty and community members gathered to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
The holiday commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s sacrifice and submission to God, and is also connected to the end of the season of the hajj — the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca — which millions of Muslims complete at this time of year. Religious studies professor Frank Griffel described the holiday as a time for Muslims all over the world to connect to the events in Mecca and partake in the rites of the feast. And for Coordinator of Muslim Life Omer Bajwa, the 15th annual Eid banquet — which traditionally celebrates the values of gratitude and charity — also carried an air of sentimentality, as it is the last one to be held for some time, due to the impending renovation of the Schwarzman Center and the structure of the lunar calendar, which dictates that Eid will fall during the summer for the next few years.
The banquet comes during a time of heightened national dialogue pertaining to Islam and xenophobia. University President Peter Salovey, one of the event’s featured speakers, described the importance of the event in terms of these conversations.
“These are not the easiest times to be Muslim. But when I look out at this tradition at Yale University, I realize that this place is different, that our community is different, that the way in which there is mutual respect and inclusion at Yale is different, and that Yale University in that way, perhaps we can say with proper humility, is a model for the rest of our country and maybe for the rest of the world,” he said.
The Yale Muslim Student Association partnered with the University Chaplain’s Office to host the event. Other speakers included Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Shawkat Toorawa, a former mentor of Bajwa’s and newly arrived professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale, who delivered the keynote address. Bajwa described Toorawa as an “indelible influence” on the trajectory of his life.
Toorawa spoke about the struggle of avoiding being profiled as a practicing Muslim who studies Arabic literature. He wants to be seen as a scholar who teaches Arabic literature, not a Muslim who does so, he said. And his work has been profiled in other ways, he added: In the 1990s, a news outlet mistakenly called him, assuming that he was an expert on the entire Muslim world and thus could speak on Operation Desert Storm.
“I responded by asking the reporter whether the newspaper had contacted the English department when the Falklands Crisis erupted,” Toorawa said.
Griffel emphasized the growth of the Muslim community on campus.
“When I first taught here 15 years ago, there were only about a handful of undergrads who practiced Islam on campus,” Griffel said. There was also no coordinator of Muslim life at the time, he added. “The number of Muslim students steadily increased over time, so that at one point I realized I should no longer schedule events to Friday early afternoon, because so many of my students perform the weekly Jumu’ah Prayer together here on campus.”
MSA President Abrar Omeish ’18 highlighted the fact that all sectors of Yale life were represented at the event, including students, professors and administrators, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. She described the evening as a statement about the compassion and mercy that are possible outside of events such as the banquet.
However, she also explained what the University community can still work toward, describing the experiences students have had with microaggressions, professors who seem to teach to advance their personal agendas and continued ignorance among many students regarding Islam.
“Yale does a lot that other universities don’t do, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for that — hopefully we can continue to move forward in a positive direction,” Omeish said.
Princeton University and Duke University have larger budgets and a greater number of dedicated staff members for Muslim affairs, Omeish added.
Student speaker Nazar Chowdhury ’20 spoke on the importance of continuing dialogues between Muslims and non-Muslims, potentially through events similar to the Eid banquet.
“If you can expose yourself to other people and show the human being and the compassionate person that you are, I can guarantee that there’s nobody in the world who will have anti-Islamic sentiments,” Chowdhury said.
In his address, Holloway referred to a brief improvised poem by the late boxer Muhammad Ali, himself a converted Muslim, which Holloway said captured the spirit of solidarity of the night: “‘You. Me. We.’”