By Najib Aminy
Silence spreads throughout the Student Union Ballroom—all focus shifts to front of the room as stragglers walk in, dropping off their book bags and slipping their shoes off against the wall looking for a place to sit. Chatter from the bustling Union cafeteria next door and raindrops from a detoured Hurricane Earl pelting the skylight windows disturb the quiet. But it is the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, which resonates.
“Come to Prayer! Come to Prayer!” recites SBU sophomore Zain Ali in a melody, strictly in Arabic. “Come to the Success! Come to the Success!” Ali continues the adhan in a Saudi Arabian version, mixed with his own style, acquired from watching videos on YouTube. It is a call that the Chemistry and Spanish double major gives often at SBU, and one that many Stony Brook Muslims will hear during Jummah prayer—the mandatory congregational prayer held every Friday afternoon.
This prayer, which precedes the Labor Day weekend, holds an added spiritual and physical significance as the Imam, cloaked in a white long pristine garb and a red-and-white patterned keffiyeh, reminds the congregation of more than 200. Ramadan, the leader of this given prayer says in his hoarse voice, is like a vault, when opened, full of religious opportunity and increased rewards. But once this Muslim holy month comes to a close, no less than a week from this given prayer, so does that vault.
During these 30 days Muslims must fast from sunrise to sunset—no bread, water or medicine is permitted. But for most Muslims, that’s not the hardest, let alone most meaningful, part. “It’s not just about the food,” says Nabiha Zakir, President of the Muslim Student Association at SBU. “For us everything revolves around spirituality, [and in Ramadan] we want to strengthen our grasp over our soul and control our desires.”
It is a fast of the five senses, for example, where acts of backbiting, lustful gaze and listening to music are prohibited. “It is a training program of self-restraining to better our relationship with god,” says Ali, who is half-Italian and Pakistani.
Bigger than the challenges of fasting that SBU Muslims face during Ramadan is the management of schoolwork while practicing their faith. For example, many Muslims have conflicting schedules between class and iftar, the time designated to break the fast. It’s a dilemma political science major Moiz Siddiqui is faced with as he embarks on the final few days of this year’s Ramadan.
“It’s obviously tough with everyone eating around you, but what is really difficult is how we budget school work with going to tarawih [special night prayer], reading Qu’ran and aiming ourselves as Muslims,” says Siddiqui, who leaves his evening classes to break his fast. But that balance becomes easier to handle during the last 10 days, a holy period when Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. “School comes second.”
As sundown approaches, food is prepared and heated, straw prayer mats are unrolled and members of the community come in, waiting for the designated time that marks sundown. As per tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, it is customary for Muslims to break their fast with a date palm, a fruit that has a unique sweetness to it. The adhan is then called to gather people for one of the five mandatory daily prayers.
Following prayer, a long-winding line forms, where conversations are held in multiple languages and discussions touch on topics ranging from classes, the day’s events to hunger. As the line bottlenecks towards the tables where food is served, Siddiqui is running the lettuce station, where he will stand for the next half-hour as others sit back down to eat food and quench their thirst after a long day’s fast. “The lines are always long. What are you going to do?” asks the Hicksville native. “In the end it’s just about helping everybody out.”
The iftars are also open to non-Muslims, including freshman Trevor North, who volunteered to carry food to the ballroom after seeing one MSA member struggle with the task. He was invited to sit in and grab food. “In high school, you learn about Islam but you don’t learn about their holidays and very little about their belief systems,” said North, a chemical engineering major. “You don’t really learn much about Islam but to see it first hand—it’s a great way to learn about different cultures.”
One of the few benefits, MSA members say, of having Ramadan take place during the school semester is the sense of fraternity that comes with it.
“I was honestly awe inspired,” says Ali, a Queens native who started a Muslim club in his high school and was blown away by the comparison. “I thought it was extremely beautiful to see all these different people coming together for a sole purpose.”
But it wasn’t always this way. What once started in the mail room in the Humanities building, before it was refurbished, has now grown to what MSA Chaplain Sanaa Nadim considers an accomplishment 18 years in the making. Before, the iftars would be held occasionally with only a few pans of food to feed the few students that attended. Now, every weeknight there are heaping trays of heated food that feed hundreds.
Establishing a strong community presence was a dream Sister Sanaa says was without a dollar, and through the course of her time here, that presence has expanded dramatically to where it is today. “I prayed; I wanted so much for my students to have the same privilege that other groups on campus had,” said Sister Sanaa. “The growth has been tremendous and amazing over the years.”
But that growth comes at a time when Islam in America has been placed under a magnifying glass. Islam has been the subject of a summer-long media spotlight, with stories ranging from the Muslim community center proposition in lower Manhattan to a radical and extremist Florida Pastor pledging to go forth and burn Qu’rans on the ninth anniversary of September 11.
And as public opinion towards Islam continues to decrease, with a recent Pew Center Research poll pointing to 40 percent of Americans interviewed having an unfavorable view towards Islam—up 11 percent from the survey conducted in 2005—being a Muslim American now includes fighting off the stereotypes.
For Zakir, her decision to wear a headscarf was a voluntary one. Her decision to cover her head, although not kindly welcomed by her large immediate family in the initial days post-9/11, has now become a means for her to further practice her religion.
“What we see as modest, other people in America see as oppression,” Zakir says. “The reason why I cover up is not because I am forced to, but it is to get in touch with my spirituality and to get closer to god and continue that relationship.”
And yet while there is a clear gender divide between where female Muslims stand in prayer—in the back—it is an issue that is deeply rooted in religion and modesty rather than limitation of rights. “If we felt we were being oppressed, obviously we wouldn’t be here,” asserts Zakir.
The Social Jihad
For those practicing Muslims, devout life means many restrictions on behavior that most students would perceive as normal condoned activity; from drinking to dating.
“What is really hard for a Muslim living in America, I definitely would have to say, is the promiscuity [in] American pop culture,” Ali says. “It’s the culture that glorifies the degradation of the status of women, the pursuit of primordial desires like money, food, sex and material success. That kind of stuff is a problem for me.”
Ali had a first-hand encounter with these issues during his freshman year dorming with his non-Muslim roommate. “He engaged in activities out of the norm for me,” says Ali. “My hatred towards that kind of stuff is not translated into hatred towards the people but the actions they are committing, because I hate what they are doing.”
When asked by her students about addressing these issues, Sister Sanaa offers one piece of advice—all of these issues, conflicts and dilemmas are part of one’s path of life. “Age, time and journey are part of your destiny,” she says. “sSme will falter and will need help, while others will find their way and move on.”
“The idea to me is, if God can forgive you, then who are we to judge each other,” she adds.
Saying Goodbye to a Friend
What makes this year’s Ramadan entirely special for the MSA students is that this will be the last spiritual month that will take place during the school year for the next ten years. Ramadan appears a little earlier each year due to conflicts between its lunar based calendar and the Gregorian calendar. And for Sister Sanaa, it could be her very last Ramadan shared with students as Chaplain of SBU.
“What a journey it has been. I pray I am still here; I made it 18 years,” she says, reflecting over the last iftar held for this year’s Ramadan. “I am grateful and I will never look back except with smiles and tears.”
Holding similar sentiment, many MSA members find the end of Ramadan to be bittersweet.
“It’s a really sad time,” says Zakir, “it’s our Christmas and, once it leaves, you can’t wait for the next one. I pray that I can live that long.”
“It is a relief, human beings like to eat,” Ali says, “but it is also sad because it is as if a friend is leaving you.”
Photos taken by the author