Change begins with conversations,” said the woman wearing the velvet hijab, surveying the room of students from behind the podium. “A lot of the walls that we have between us have to do with misunderstandings. The biggest barrier is the fact that we don’t talk.”
It’s Friday evening at the Afro-American Cultural Center, and the 100 students in the room have just listened to a 50-minute speech delivered by Dalia Mogahed, a writer for The Huffington Post and author of books on spiritual development. Unopened trays of food sit in the back, and Abrar Omeish ’18, president of the Muslim Students Association, announced that the time had finally come to eat, signifying the end of Yale MSA’s Islam Awareness Week.
Islam Awareness Week, when the MSA hosts a flurry of events intended to educate people about Muslims and their religion, has long been an annual tradition for the MSA chapter at Yale and at college campuses around the country. Yale’s MSA board began planning this year’s week last summer, and much of the ideas solidified during winter break. The board decided to base each day of Islam Awareness Week on a theme related to the virtues of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam as a whole.
“Our goal was to embody the essence of Islam on campus through different themes, and we wanted to make sure we did so in a way that was proactive and not necessarily reactionary,” said Omeish. “With the [current] political climate and Islamophobia, it’s very easy to be forced into responses rather than just saying what we are and what we stand for.”
The week kicked off Monday, themed the “Day of the Prophet.” Throughout Monday, MSA members gave out roses containing “hadiths,” oral traditions of the Prophet, to passersby. In addition, the MSA conducted a photo campaign where people were invited to complete a message scribbled on whiteboards that began with “A Muslim is someone who …” Many passersby accepted the roses, and a few even completed the message on the whiteboards. The MSA photo campaign received national coverage, most notably from Mic.
That night, in the intimate setting of the MSA’s praying space in the basement of Bingham Hall, Muslim Chaplain Omer Bajwa gave an hourlong lecture on the life and attributes of the Prophet. The event was open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Bajwa found the task a challenging one.
“How can you condense the life of what we see as the most exemplary, extraordinary human being in the world to a one-hour-long or less [session]?” said Bajwa.
While there are classes at Yale that provide a satisfactory introduction to the life of the Prophet from a historical perspective, Bajwa wished to provide a uniquely Muslim perspective by infusing his presentation of the Prophet’s story with the love and affection that the global Muslim community feels toward the personage of the Prophet. To that end, Bajwa attempted to synthesize an academic summary of the Prophet’s biography with a more human touch. Bajwa hoped to provide non-Muslim guests with a window into the “special place” that the Prophet has in the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide.
“[This] was a useful and extraordinary opportunity [to help people] understand that this is how we think of the [Prophet], that he was the greatest human being to walk the face of the earth, and why we feel that,” Bajwa said. “What is it about his life, about his presence, about his message, [about his] legacy that he left behind that still impacts a quarter of the world’s population?”
Tuesday was the “Day of Justice,” where spoken word artist Amir Sulaiman performed in the Davenport Theater. Aside from his recent appointment as a Harvard Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, Sulaiman is a renowned poet and an international artist who has performed in places ranging from England to Saudi Arabia to the Netherlands. He recently published a book of poetry titled “Love, Gnosis & Other Suicide Attempts,” along with an album called “The Opening,” third in a trilogy that began in 2011 with “The Meccan Openings” and continued with “The Medinan Openings” in 2012.
Much of Sulaiman’s work, which often centers on love, tragedy and modernity, is rooted in his Islamic faith. He addressed a wide variety of topics during his performance, alluding to the history of Muslim slaves in the United States by speaking of Islam as a liberation theology, and wowing his audience with rapid-fire bursts of poetry.
“I was honestly just blown away by [Sulaiman’s] lyrical abilities [and] his poetic touch,” said Nazar Chowdhury ’20, a freshman liaison for the MSA.
Wednesday and Thursday
Wednesday, the “Day of Service,” saw Muslim students participating in a soup kitchen at St. Thomas More. On Thursday night, the MSA hosted a “Night of Light” which took place at Dwight Chapel. Seated on carpets and surrounded by the soft glow of flickering candles, Muslims and non-Muslims alike listened in silence to the recitation of Qur’anic verses. The MSA board carefully selected specific verses to communicate important aspects of Islam. One chapter, “The Romans,” talks about God’s signs in creation, while another, “Maryam,” provided an Islamic perspective on the story of Jesus.
The week concluded on Friday with the “Day of Faith,” which opened the weekly Friday sermon and prayers to both Muslims and non-Muslims. The climactic keynote dinner came in the evening at the Afro-American Cultural Center. The MSA invited a wide array of student groups, from the Yale Republicans to the Yale College Democrats. Student organizations in attendance included the boards of Joseph Slifka Center, Yale Students for Christ, Chinese American Student Association and Black Church at Yale.
To Omair Khan ’19, the MSA’s treasurer, the keynote address proved to be the greatest organizational challenge of the week. Aside from the requisite setup and decoration, the event necessitated coordination with over 10 student groups and catering for over 100 people. Still, it was exactly that effort that rendered the successful execution of the dinner so rewarding.
“Seeing everything come together was really humbling and it allowed me to appreciate my fellow board members [on] a whole new level,” said Khan. “It was amazing to see the relentless work and dedication that was put forth to plan the event culminate in an event with record attendance, attracting students from across opposite ends of the University, literally and figuratively.”
This year’s Islam Awareness Week received support from cultural centers like the Asian American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural Center and the Afro-American Cultural Center. Academic departments also came out in support for the week’s events, including the Schell Center for International Human Rights at the Yale Law School; Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; the Center for Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration; the Poynter Fellowship; as well as Yale College Council and Branford College. Many of the presidents of these organizations attended at the dinner.
Usman Qadri ’18, the religious chair of the MSA, began the event with a recitation of Quranic verses. His recitation was followed by a word from Susan Aboeid ’19, the political chair of the MSA and the lead organizer of the week’s events.
“Organizing Islam Awareness Week has been challenging, but it’s also been very inspiring, and it’s been an amazing experience for me,” said Aboeid. “The reason for Islam Awareness Week is that over the past decade, there has been a rise in Islamophobia that manifests in violent and very destructive ways, and this is mostly due to a sense of false destructive narratives about what Islam is and who Muslims are. Islam Awareness Week, in a sense, was our chance, as Muslims, to tell our own story about our religion, and we hope to reconstruct this perspective of Islam, even if only within the Yale community, by conveying our message through actions over the past week.”
Yasmin Mogahed began her keynote speech by deconstructing the popular notion of Islam as a “new religion,” stressing its continuity with Judeo-Christian tradition. She then discussed the linguistic roots of the word Islam itself, which is linked to the Arabic words for both “submission [to God]” and “peace.” She elucidated Islam’s principles of service and compassion, which she demonstrated with examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. She spoke at length about the compassion he displayed toward his enemies during his Year of Sadness, when his wife and uncle passed away. A psychology graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mogahed integrated research from the field into a broader framework of spiritual development. Each person has a baseline of happiness, Mogahed said, and that although achieving certain milestones may create a spike in one’s level of happiness, it quickly subsides. Instead, research has shown that reaching out and helping other people is what creates lasting change in one’s degree of happiness.
“That’s powerful, because it tells us a lot about human nature and the design of God,” said Mogahed. “There’s an intrinsic motivation. God’s intent is that we should be a people … in the service of others.”
Mogahed stressed that righteousness in Islam does not consist of secluded worship in a mosque, but rather diligent activism in the service of others. Spirituality is not restricted to a set of ritualistic practices, but rather is achieved by engagement with the community. She also spoke of the importance of social justice in Islam.
“Like the Prophet said, speaking truth even to an oppressive ruler is one of the greatest struggles,” said Mogahed.
Many non-Muslim students reacted positively to the Muslim student body’s outreach throughout the week. At the photo campaign, one student wrote that “a Muslim is someone who is loved and welcomed,” while another wrote that “a Muslim is someone who is my friend, colleague and fellow citizen.” Students not only enjoyed the interactive events, but also appreciated the keynote address.
“I’m grateful to MSA and the Afro-American Cultural Center for creating a space for representatives from student organizations to think critically about how we can form a broad, supportive coalition here at Yale,” said Josh Hochman ’18, president of the Yale College Democrats. “Solidarity is crucial, and Friday’s event was a crucial step toward fostering it.”
Previous iterations of the Yale MSA’s Islam Awareness Week, which has been going on for over 16 years, have centered on different themes. In 2003, less than two years after 9/11, the MSA hosted an Islamic Awareness Week centered on a theme of “Defining a Muslim-American Identity,” which included a film screening and discussion with Alex Kronemer, director of “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” and a panel discussion titled “Defining a Muslim Identity at Yale and in America” with a local mosque’s imam, a Muslim immigrant and a Muslim convert. In 2007, the event focused on global Muslim contributions in the artistic, cultural and political spheres, from a film screening about a Muslim’s efforts to save Jews during World War II to an art exhibition of Pakistani artist Ayesha Khan’s work.
“[This week was] really trying to present Islam for what it is, for what we love about it, for what it inspires us [to do], rather than trying to explain ourselves, or react to certain things, or trying to convince people the reason we deserve to exist or be respected, because we don’t need anyone to tell us [that],” said Omeish. “We’re unapologetically Muslim.”