By: Muhammad Souman Elah, MTS ’22
Editor’s Note: Souman Elah is a second-year MTS student at HDS focusing on Islamic studies. In this article he reflects on his first year at HDS, from finding a home in the Muslim community to studying classical and modern Islam to having late-night chats in his kitchen with his roommates. Towards the end of the article, he also shares some helpful advice for other international students considering applying to HDS.
Tell us about yourself. What should we know about you and your time at HDS?
I am a second-year MTS (Master’s in Theological Studies) candidate with a focus on Islamic Studies. My time here at HDS has been full of excitement and “bliss” (Alhamdulillah) — as some of my friends would put it considering my enthusiasm and energy when I interact with them. It is bliss because I have been taking my favorite classes, learning classical Arabic, making life-long friendships (Insha-Allah), building connections with professors, and seeking illumination from my peer’s perspectives inside and outside the classroom — be it during walks to campus for an early morning class or from my HDS roommates in the midnight conversations we have in our kitchen or living room.
How have you found a community on campus?
Unfortunately, as a result of the pandemic, I had to complete my first year at HDS on Zoom. Still, the HDS resources, including weekly student organization gatherings and some casual Zoom chats with friends gave me a sense of where I was and what was going on. We would meet biweekly for our HDS Muslims gatherings where I was serving as Treasurer for them. I realized through these meetings, and after arriving here on campus physically, that the Muslim community, not only at HDS but also at Harvard, is quite diverse. This year, since we no longer operate in the Zoom world, we hold weekly halaqas (spiritual gatherings) just before the Friday prayer, and then we go together for lunch with the aim of cultivating a strong Muslim community here. There is a good chunk of Pakistanis on campus as well (including some from the Pakistani diaspora in the US), so it is not difficult to get the homie vibes I need sometimes due to the homesickness I occasionally feel as an international student. We speak Urdu, eat Pakistani food (Chicken Karahi, Biryani, etc.), and go on trips together.
What have you been studying at HDS?
At HDS, I have been exploring different periods (both classical and modern) and methodologies (textual and anthropological) within Islamic studies. My favorite classes have been Islam and Religious Diversity and What is (Lived) Islam? The professors for both these classes were amazing and we got a flavor of different historical approaches, Quranic studies, and Islamic philosophy in classical times in the former and the lived experiences of believers in modern times in the latter. Furthermore, all MTS students have to take three courses outside of their area of focus, which forces you to explore new subjects or gives you an opportunity to build on what you already studied for your undergraduate degree. I am taking Introduction to Hebrew Bible this semester, and I took a class on the intersection of politics and religion in Spring 2021 which I was interested in since I had studied political science for my undergraduate degree.
What advice do you have for other international students applying to HDS?
I have two pieces of advice for other international students applying to HDS. First, I would always advise reaching out to people who are already here and asking them questions! While I was applying to HDS, the HDS Admissions team was really helpful, responding in a timely manner to my queries over email and holding webinars to explain all the nitty-gritty parts of the application process. I started writing my personal statement a couple of months before the deadline so that I could think through it and improve it with the passage of time. My mentors and some senior students also really helped me with it. Once I enrolled at HDS I was also able to seek advice from students who had already taken specific classes with various professors. You can also shop for different classes in the first week of each term and then enroll in the ones that you find most compatible with your interests.
Secondly, it is always better to manage things ahead of time instead of rushing through them near the application deadline. For the recommendation letters, I would say reach out to your potential recommenders way ahead of time, at least a month and a half before the deadline. For other international students, you may have to apply for a visa to study in the U.S., and I would also suggest that you apply for it as soon as you can as it might take way longer than you’d think!