Ryan Chiao, Photo Editor

Each spring, the Muslim Leadership Lab — a Dwight Hall leadership program for self-identifying Muslims and their allies — selects a cohort of around 15 to 20 students to take part in community service and leadership development training. 

Though members of the cohort are often Yale-affiliated, the Muslim Leadership Lab is open to the broader New Haven community. This year’s cohort, which was announced on March 20, is one of the most diverse groups since its inception in 2018, welcoming students of different races, sexual identities and, for the first time, intentionally inviting students from different colleges, including Harvard, Columbia and New York University.

Members of the cohort include cultural Muslims, practicing Muslims and self-described allies to the community. This year’s programming is centered around the themes of justice and intersectionality. According to Abdul-Rehman Malik, the founder and director of the Muslim Leadership Lab, this year’s theme was influenced by the racial inequalities that have been spotlighted during the pandemic — namely the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans. He said that he and his community felt a sense of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We very much look at Islam as a wisdom tradition in the Muslim Leadership Lab, something that is universal and accessible,” Malik said. “The pandemic has shown [systemic inequalities] in a very particular intimate and personal way. My thinking was that … this would be [an] opportunity to really explore the idea of what is justice, particularly drawing on the Islamic wisdom tradition.”

According to Malik, this semester’s workshops are split into four broad themes: examining justice through the Islamic faith, fostering meaningful conversations about gender and racial justice, navigating the social impact space and building interfaith leadership. 

The lab’s activities include holding leadership workshops and engaging with current affairs through group conversations. In the fall, the Muslim Leadership Lab is more broadly open to the community through event programming, while the lab focuses on training its new cohort in the spring. According to Malik, the most important part of the lab is building confidence in students.

Rida Ali, a student at New York University, found out about about the Muslim Leadership Lab through intercollegiate work she was doing with Yale’s Muslim Students Association. She was excited when she learned that this year’s program would be open to students from other universities. Ali, who is a practicing Muslim, told the News that since joining the program, she has used her faith to critically reflect on her views of fairness and empathy.

“I’ve been rethinking how can I reframe and reimagine my life in a sense that I can incorporate, you know, all these aspects like charity, Islam, equality, advocacy into everything I do, rather than making it one aspect of my whole experience,” Ali said.

So far, the cohort has completed three out of six intensive core training sessions, during which they read religious texts, hold group discussions and study the historical context of service work both in contemporary America and in the Islamic tradition. After their final session, the cohort will participate in a training program with the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago non-profit that fosters collaboration and leadership development amongst students of different faiths. 

Mehdi Baqri ’21, who was part of the first Muslim Leadership Lab cohort and has been involved ever since, told the News that he has watched the program evolve firsthand.

“MLL’s deepest impact has been in creating a special community,” he said. “MLL has given us new friendships, practical and critical frameworks, and a renewed engagement with the rich Islamic wisdom tradition of leadership, justice and mercy.” 

Zahra Yarali ’24, another cohort member, first found out about the lab through the Muslim Students Association newsletter. They stressed the importance of spaces such as the Muslim Leadership Lab that allow for relevant conversations. 

“I’m looking forward to learning alongside some of my really good friends,” Yarali said. “And kind of engaging conversations on certain issues that we all recognise as inherently just, social justice issues that we have to address head on regarding race, regarding queerness, regarding all of these really contentious issues, but also being able to do it through the lens of Islam and how to be a Muslim in the modern world.”

Alysha Siddiqi ’23, who is participating in the Muslim Leadershp Lab for the second year in a row, described community outreach as a fundamental part of her faith. She noted that the community service work that the cohort does is particularly important to her.

Members of the cohort are encouraged to participate in various service initiatives in their local communities, and are free to decide in what ways to do so. 

Yarali noted that the lessons they are gaining from taking part in the program are relevant to their everyday life.

“There’s so much pain in this world that many people of all different backgrounds experience,” they said. “I just find comfort in the belief that Allah is there and, in this faith tradition, has laid this groundwork for us to find comfort in the teachings of this religion and the love of God. And as imperfect as humans are, trying to achieve the kind of perfect love that I feel as though God has for all humans and the way that we treat others.” 

This year’s cohort will finish their training in May.

Simisola Fagbemi | simi.fagbemi@yale.edu