Harvard Divinity School students come from an array of different ages, ethnicities, and religious and secular backgrounds. When I first visited HDS on Admitted Students Day, I was delighted to find a diverse student body and especially excited to find a Muslim community here, to call my spiritual home.
On that day, back in April 2013, it was a Muslim student (MDiv ‘15) who greeted me with a “salaam!” and an epic bear hug as I walked into Community Tea. Earlier that day, while walking through Harvard yard, I struggled to find a clean place to make my afternoon prayers (and ended up praying out on the grass). Imagine my joy when another Muslim student (MTS ’14) offered to guide me up a set of stairs in Andover Hall to the chapel where there was a designated nook for Muslims to pray, including prayer rugs and a marker indicating the direction of the qibla.
The greatest thing of all, however, was the rich diversity of the Muslims themselves. This year, I have had the honor of serving as HDS Muslim Council’s president and I have never been a part of a Muslim community as open and inviting as this one. We have members from across the globe who identify as secular Muslims, converts, Shi’i, and Sunni. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, as well as the Office of Student Life, go to great lengths to accommodate and support the Muslim Council, which helped us put on a number of events this year. For example, we organized the first-ever HDS Muslim student speaker series, “Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation.” We also organized an ‘Eid al-Adha brunch outing and participated in a number of community service projects.
Even with all of this wonderful programming and support for Muslim students, life as a Muslim at HDS isn’t all sunshine and flowers. Prospective Muslim students should note that there will be times when you must advocate for your spiritual needs. At times, the Muslim community may feel clique-ish and exclusive. That’s why I’ve put together this list of ten tips for prospective Muslim students. Some of these will be more relevant if you visit or enroll, but, even if you’re just exploring the idea of coming here, these pointers will give you a sense of what it’s like to be a Muslim student at HDS and what’s available to you.
Please note that every Muslim student at HDS does not have the same experience, and these tips are based on my personal experiences and observations:
- This year our denominational counselor was Imam Suhaib Webb. Take the opportunity to get to know your denominational counselor at orientation.
- Introduce yourself to Kerry Maloney, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life. She is connected to many of the Muslim student leaders on campus and is a terrific resource.
- Note that there are a TON of places to meditate, pray, and reflect across HDS campus and the University. Here’s a short list:
- Andover Hall Chapel
- Divinity Hall Chapel
- Center for the Study of World Religions Meditation Room
- The Muslim prayer space in Canaday Hall. (Students must request swipe card access to this space)
- Meditation room on the 2nd floor of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard Kennedy School (to the right, at the elevators)
- HDS folks love to hug! If you don’t touch members of the opposite gender for religious reasons, don’t be embarrassed. Just let them know.
- The Harvard Islamic Society organizes Jummah prayers and events, such as a weekly halal dinner and Ramadan iftars. Take advantage of these opportunities.
- At times, you may feel like the token Muslim in a class, or at an event. If this bothers you, say something. Everyone here is willing to learn about and understand you.
- Check out the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Islamic Studies program at Harvard University for conferences and events that are intellectually stimulating.
- You may be invited to participate in HDS traditions like Noon Service or the Multireligious Service of Thanksgiving that take place in chapels and churches and feel very Christian. Don’t let that keep you from participating. These are rare opportunities to see what it looks like for a historically Christian institution to grow and embrace the increasing religious diversity of its student body.
- Last summer, I was studying Arabic with the Summer Language Program (SLP), which overlapped with Ramadan with a final exam scheduled during the ‘Eid holiday. After some conversation with the instructor, we were able to make alternate arrangements for Muslims to take the test. Conflicts like this might arise during your time here. Be proactive about checking your calendar and don’t hesitate to start these conversations. Faculty, staff, and administrators are responsive to student concerns and eager to help, and so are your fellow classmates. The HDS Student Association officers followed up with administrators to make sure exams wouldn’t ever be held on ‘Eid again, and the Director of the SLP took the extra step of moving summer classes from the evening to the morning so Muslim students can attend iftar dinners. In sum, advocate for yourself, and expect to be heard.
- Finally, check out the HDS Muslim Council, and join the Council’s Facebook group!
For the 2014-2015 academic year, I’ll be serving as the first-ever Muslim President of the HDS Student Association and I’m excited to welcome prospective Muslim students to HDS. So if you come visit and we cross paths, please say “Salaam!”