The Muslim Experience at Iowa State
Parks Library is a hub for campus life: studying, scavenging for books, a quick nap or a cup of coffee. But for some of Iowa State’s Muslim students, the hidden nooks and crannies of the five-floor building also can be used for private midday prayer space.
Uzma Razak, junior in supply chain management from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, sometimes ventures to the top floor of the library to fulfill one of her five daily prayers, which is one of the five pillars of her Islamic traditions.
It’s not difficult to find a place to pray on campus, Razak said. The towering, tightly packed age-scented bookshelves of the library, the chapel in the Memorial Union, a few of the lesser-used floors or rooms of buildings all provide privacy.
Razak, who is pursuing a second major in management information systems and adding a minor in Mandarin, usually prays on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays, when her full class schedule doesn’t permit enough time to hop on the bus home to West Ames.
Every day, she wakes up before the sun to say her first prayer, called subuh in Malay. Prayer might take anywhere from five to 15 minutes. She then eats breakfast and heads to class. Before lunch, a second prayer, zohor.
After lunch, Razak will sit through more classes, then she’ll head home to study. The third prayer, Asr, comes midafternoon. Between the last meal of the day and putting her head to the pillow, two more prayers must be said, the Maghrib and Isha.
Generally, Razak said she doesn’t feel judged for or ashamed of praying in public.
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t received a few lingering glances here and there.
“Everyone is mostly friendly,” said Razak, who is proud to say she owns “a lot” of colorful hijabs, a cloth covering the head worn by some Muslim women. “But I do accept weird looks occasionally.”
And that’s the extent of any skepticism toward her religion Razak said she has experienced since coming to the United States. The ISU community, she said, has been accepting of her beliefs.
“There are so many kinds of people here who are friendly toward each other,” she said. “The level of tolerance is very high.”
However, when the world trembles after hearing of the terrors performed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Levant, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL, Razak said she knows some people aren’t as tolerant of the Islamic faith.
It’s “rational to be afraid” of Muslims when all people hear about is “the extreme things about ISIS,” said Razak, who has discussed the situation with her friends. They agree that you “can’t blame people for being scared.”
This fear of the Muslim community based on one sliver of its population is one which Humza Malik and other officers of the Muslim Student Association ask the organization’s members to consider cautiously.
Malik, sophomore in electrical engineering, led the group’s last general meeting of the fall 2015 semester before finals week in a discussion on what the word jihad – the religious duty of Muslims to maintain the religion – really means and how the mainstream media is getting it wrong.
“One of the things I guess is happening in today’s world is people say, ‘These jihadists are doing this bad thing and this bad thing.’ The actual word jihad means something very different to what is seen in today’s world,” Malik explained. “The word jihad simply translates to struggle. In the Quran, it talks about the big part of jihad is the struggle within yourself – the hard times you have in your life, the temptations you have in your life and getting through those.”
Jihad does include the idea of a physical fight or war, but that’s the part most Muslims avoid most, said Malik, who was born and raised in England and whose parents were born in Pakistan. He, too, said he understands why people fear Muslims.
But the number of Muslims who are extreme Islamists is not the majority of the population, said James Broucek, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies whose focused area of study is Islam. This is a point he stresses to his introduction to Islam class.
“Americans associate 1 percent of the Islamic population [that is extremist] with more than 1 billion Muslims,” Broucek said. “You hear talk about Islamists. The term ‘Islamist’ is associated with militant or terrorist, when it means people who flourish under God’s law.”
Islamism and Islam are not synonyms. The Washington Institute defines Islamism as “a political ideology that strives to derive legitimacy from Islam … anti-ideology, in the sense that it defines itself only in opposition to things. That is, Islamism stands not for but against.”
Islam is an umbrella term for 1.2 to 1.6 billion people in the world. Dozens of countries, languages, cultures and geographies stress and practice the ideas of Islam in a variety of ways. But, in general, Broucek said, Islam is a peaceful religion.
“God’s law is the only standard of justice,” Broucek said in describing the religion. “What the extremists do is break from precedents of early Muslim techniques. The vast majority [of Muslims] don’t think about warfare. They think about lunch. They think about family. Like everyone else.”
The terrorists the world fears is only a splinter of the Islamic community, Broucek said, as 250 people of the Islamic faith have been arrested since Sept. 11, 2001.
“Americans need concrete numbers to restrain their imagination,” he said. “Most Americans know so few Muslims that when they hear of these terrible events, they associate it with all [Muslims].
“I could show you so many examples of people who identify as Christian [performing acts of violence], and it holds no weight because people know so many Christians,” Broucek said. “Those examples hold a lot of weight when you don’t know any Muslims.”
During his freshman year, Malik lived with three roommates in the suites in Martin Residence Hall. When Malik would pray or read the Quran in his room, his roommates, who grew up in Christian households, would ask him questions about Islam, and the occasional tough question would arise. One asked: Why does the world see Islam as a violent religion?
“Well, it’s pretty much deception,” Malik said in recalling his answer. “We talked about how these days the media is confusing people. You hear Islam in the media and you see terrorist, Al Qaeda, and it starts to dig into people’s minds. If you don’t have a Muslim friend or a mosque or something like that near you, if the only thing you hear about Muslims is on TV, and it’s Jihad, that’s going to [affect] how you see Muslims.
“I showed [my roommates] the Quran and showed them some quotes, and they learned Islam is quite different than what they thought,” Malik said. “I’m glad that happened. I wouldn’t want them to ask those questions to anyone who wasn’t Muslim or a Muslim who didn’t know the answers.”
Malik and other members of the Muslim Student Association use this and other outreach methods to educate people who might have an exaggerated idea about Islam. He and association officers set up a table at noon every Thursday in Parks Library, where passersby can ask questions about the Quran and the religion.
“We’ve had people who are really aggressive and try to explain what Islam is to me, so they obviously don’t come to listen to me,” Malik said. “Growing up around different cultures and different religions molded me to be patient and tolerant.”
People who visit the table sometimes bring up questions they gather from what they hear in the media, Malik said, most of which revolve around ISIS.
“People say Islam is the reason ISIS is like this. They start pulling things from the Quran they say proves the point Islam is violent,” Malik said. “It’s so taken out of context, especially when that book is translated from another language.”
He remembered watching a segment on Fox News when the reporter brought up a verse of the Quran, found in chapter 2, which pretty much said, “Kill them wherever you find them,” a portion taken out of context.
“So right off the bat it seems like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ But if you really look at that verse in that chapter, that chapter is talking about a certain battle, the first battle that Muslims fought,” Malik explained.
“That verse is specifically saying that this is what was said to the Muslims during this battle, to kill the enemy, but before that verse, it talks about not to transverse the limits. The limits are fighting those who are fighting you. Transgressing the limits is fighting those who are not fighting you, and that is forbidden. After that verse, it says, if they stop fighting, you have to stop fighting. If they’re not fighting you, you don’t fight them.”
Some in the media, Broucek said, will “cherry pick the worst examples” when speaking of Muslims and the Islam faith, one area of which is the treatment of women.
Not all Muslim women have to wear a hijab, as the decision is often up to them, yet not all Muslim women are allowed to drive. It depends on the country.
Razak, who has two sisters, a mother and friends from whom she’ll snag ideas for a stylish hijab, said she has never used the word ‘oppressed’ to describe women in her religion, although she also said she can see where people on the outside looking in may choose the word.
Razak, along with her sisters and the other women in her family, will choose who they will marry, although they are expected to be Muslim. In Indonesia, Razak added, women can marry whomever they want.
Razak can drive, although women in mostly Muslim country Saudi Arabia cannot.
Malaysia is more liberal, she said. It is also constantly a tropical hot. She chooses to dress modestly, wearing one of her drawer-full of colorful hijabs and covering her arms and legs.
Some Muslim women in Malaysia choose to wear three-quarter length or short-sleeved shirts. But she doesn’t mind covering up; it’s modest and the material is thin. Besides, she’s used to the heat and hates the cold.
“I don’t have a situation where I have felt oppressed,” she said.
Razak and Malik both participate in Ramadan, a holy month-long fast during which Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, a time of reflection as part of the third pillar of Islam’s five pillars.
Islam allows for a few exceptions in people who must fast. People venturing on a journey or who are ill don’t have to fast because doing so would take a toll on their bodies, Razak said, and a woman who is on her period does not have to fast during her cycle.
“It’s the one time of year you’re grateful for your menstrual cycle,” Razak said with a laugh.
Ramadan, Malik said, is a meditative time to reflect on the year behind and look to the year ahead. Razak said she and her family wake up early before the sun shines to scarf down as many calories as they can before going about their days. The sun goes down and the coconut rice with chili sauce rolls out.
Fasting in Iowa isn’t quite the same as fasting in Malaysia, Razak said. If Razak is in Iowa during a summer Ramadan, she may have to go 17 hours without eating or drinking anything. In Malaysia, it’s about 12 hours.
Ramadan, which moves ahead in the calendar about 11 days each year, is “great” during the winter months, Razak said, when daylight hours decrease.
Breaking a fast in Malaysia might mean diving into a bowl full of spicy Indian food, something Razak said she wishes she could find more easily in Iowa. She has grown to enjoy a few American staples, though, such as mashed potatoes, cheese pizza, hash browns and pancakes.
She said what Americans consider spicy does nothing to tantalize her taste buds.
“What’s spicy to you is sweet to me,” she said, adding the Thai curry at Buffalo Wild Wings is no challenge.
The food is a small sacrifice to pay considering how much Razak has enjoyed her time in Ames and Iowa State, she said. She welcomed the change from a packed, bustling city where people are more concerned with where they’re going than with taking the time to open the door for another, to a central Iowa town where smiles and open invitations to Thanksgiving dinners are common.
Malik, too, said the community is a big part of what compelled him to choose Iowa State. When looking for a college town, Malik looked for the basics: his desired education program, the food, where he was going to live and a place to find community in his religion. Malik said one of the most important aspects to his chosen college town was a reliable mosque.
“We have a good mosque in Ames,” Malik said. “That’s what I wanted to make sure of when I came to Ames for the first time was going to see the mosque.”
Malik tries to make it to the mosque every Friday at about 1 p.m. for prayer, for which he will sometimes choose to miss class. This, he said for context, is similar to a Christian going to church on Sunday. The garb worn to Friday prayer is traditional, colorful, thin material that covers the body. Malik said he opts for jeans most of the time, especially during the winter months, but when he’s back home, he’ll wear traditional clothing.
“The mosque is not only a gathering for Muslims to pray, but it’s also headquarters for the Muslim community here,” he said. “We have some really good people on the board. They’re really nice people. They want you to ask them questions.”
Asking questions, both Malik and Razak said, is crucial to understanding the Muslim community.
“I just hope everyone meets the nice Muslim. I wish you don’t ever in your life meet with the grumpy, extreme and conservative Muslim,” Razak said. “There’s a lot of types of people even in my own family tree. You can’t paint the Muslim community with just one brush.”
But the paint can be brushed both ways.
“It’s a need for the Muslim community to know how to explain clearly to people [about our religion] so they don’t have these misunderstandings,” Razak said. “The Muslim community generally keeps to themselves. I think we need to be more friendly and open if they want people to accept you. It’s a two-way thing.”
Malik agreed: The key to getting along is about listening to each other.
When turning on the television or scrolling through a news feed repeatedly brings headlines of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and other leaders bashing the Muslim community, Malik said he and other students in the Muslim Student Association have learned to turn the other cheek.
“It’s all about accepting and tolerating each other,” Malik said.
“Talking trash [back at people] isn’t going to help,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest things we explain to our Muslim community.
“We have these preachers coming outside the library talking about how everybody is going to hell by bashing other religions,” Malik said. “We say if you’re going to approach this person, go with viable questions. Do not go and trash him. That’s not what Muslims are about. If it doesn’t concern you, then stay out. If the subject has done nothing to you, it’s not your place.”
So, when it’s time for afternoon prayer or when he simply needs to remember what his religion teaches, Malik will head to a hidden haven in the basement of Parks Library, where he’ll pray one of his favorite verses from the Quran:
“Do not strut arrogantly about the earth: You cannot break it open nor match the mountains in height (Quran 42:42). My people, in fairness, give full measure and weight. Do not withhold from people things that are rightly theirs, and do not spread corruption in the land. (Quran 11:85).”
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