When sophomore Nuha Vora first arrived at AU, she didn’t know many other Muslim students.
She connected with a group of girls in the spring of her freshman year at a Muslim Student Association meeting. Now, they attend Friday prayers, study and spend time together, she said.
“It’s people I didn’t have to explain my whole identity to, because a lot of the friends that I met here, they’ve said to me ‘you’re the first Muslim friend that I’ve had,’” Vora, who is now the club’s communications director, said.
MSA’s goal is to give every Muslim -- regardless of which denomination of Islam they follow -- a home on campus, said Ammarah Rehman, co-president of the club.
Three percent of the class of 2021 -- 34 students -- identified as Muslim in a campus-wide survey, making it the sixth most popular religion for this year’s freshman class. However, MSA and the broader Muslim community at the University lack funding and prayer spaces. Campus restaurants also don’t serve Halal food. Combined, this makes it difficult to build a connected Muslim community at AU, Rehman said.
Muslim Student Association lacks funding
The Muslim community at AU does not have a national parent organization or full-time campus workers. The only religious groups with paid staff are Hillel (Jews), Chi Alpha (Christians), Catholics and Methodists, said Reverend Mark Schaefer, the University’s chaplain and leader of the Kay Spiritual Life Center.
This is because each group is funded by parent religious organizations, not the University. Shaefer and Jennifer Baron Knowles, Kay’s assistant director who is currently on maternity leave, are the only two Kay employees paid by the University, Schaefer said.
“The Muslim community is in kind of a special position because they’re a larger community, but without the same kind of resources that the other communities provide,” Schaefer said.
They have no paid imam who leads their prayers, Rehman said. Two imams -- Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad and Ghiyath Nakshbendi -- lead Muslim prayers for students on a voluntary basis.
MSA, a group outside of Kay, is technically a club, said Michael Elmore, senior director of University Center and Student Activities. However, since it is also a religious group, Schaefer advises MSA as needed. Kay will also fund some of MSA’s events, including iftar dinners during Ramadan, Schaefer said. Without a parent organization, MSA is sometimes left to advocate and raise money for itself.
“I don’t think this is happening because we’re Muslim, but we do feel discriminated against,” Rehman said. “We know it’s not personal, but due to the lack of resources we have, we just feel as if there’s not a lot we can do.”
Like other campus clubs that do not fall under Student Media or Student Government, the Muslim Student Association receives its funding from AU Club Council (AUCC). AUCC received about $234,000 for this academic year, said Cheyenne Oberther, coordinator of student involvement in University Center and Student Activities.
As of Nov. 8, about 140 clubs can receive funding from that pool. MSA’s biggest expense of the year is their Eid Banquet, which costs about $2,000, Rehman said.
MSA’s annual Eid Banquet moved last minute
Each year, MSA organizes an Eid Banquet to mark the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. It’s one of the two major religious holidays celebrated by Muslims, Rehman said.
Since the club couldn’t organize the event earlier in the fall semester, this year’s banquet took place on Sept. 30. Rehman booked McDowell Formal for the banquet in August 2017 and nearly 150 people attended from AU and other local universities.
However, Hillel, the campus Jewish organization, also booked McDowell Formal to break the fast after Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day of the year. They booked it during the University’s advance scheduling period, where campus groups that book large, annual events can reserve a room before the University opens reservations to the rest of the campus, Elmore said. The room has a Kosher kitchen, a requirement for Jewish dietary laws.
The day before, Student Activities recognized the accidental double booking. Elmore learned about it during the “Enough is Enough” rally on Sept. 29, he said. Hillel couldn’t move their items after sundown because of religious restrictions and therefore needed McDowell Formal, Schaefer said.
“Space is at such a premium around here,” Elmore said. “It isn’t a question of who is more important than anyone else, it’s a question of how did the process work.”
Ultimately, Student Activities moved the Eid Banquet to East Campus. No one group was at fault, Rehman said. However, she said it highlighted a lack of resources and the need for an advocate for Muslim students at AU.
Student Activities covered the cost of the East Campus room -- which requires payment for a reservation -- and reimbursed MSA for the price of the food, Elmore said.
“We have no presence on campus and then when we mess up, it makes us look sloppy,” Rehman said. “No one knows what happened. To them [attendees], it’s ‘you’re moving this event again.’ It just makes us look sloppy.”
Lack of Halal food forces some Muslims to avoid campus meat
Halal food is cuisine that adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Quran. For meat to be considered Halal, the animal must be conscious at the time of slaughter, according to an article published in “Meat Science.”
MSA recently launched a petition calling for Halal food options on campus, which students shared on Facebook with the hashtag “#AUEatsHalal.” Rehman said she’s working with Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life, to improve availability of Halal food.
As a freshman, Rehman said she went to Subway and just ate vegetarian sandwiches -- or tuna -- to avoid eating non-Halal meat. Most of her friends buy Halal meat separately or just give up on it and eat whatever is available, Rehman said.
“Halal-only doesn’t exclude anyone else from eating it either,” Ahmad said. “When it’s not Halal, we are being excluded from eating it.”
Junior Awais Ahmad, a transfer student from Bellevue College, described standing in the omelette line in the Terrace Dining Room, where a cook might use vegetables, bacon and cheese to make the dish. Eating pork is strictly forbidden by Islamic law. Ahmad accidentally ate pork last semester, which was “extremely difficult,” he said.
Absence of a designated social, prayer space for Muslim students weakens sense of community
There are rarely religious conflicts in Kay, Schaefer said, but the small size of the building means there are often disagreements over space.
“We were built in 1965, when religious diversity meant Protestant, Catholic and Jew,” Schaefer said. “That was as diverse as it got in 1965.”
Most offices inside Kay have two occupants as opposed to one, Schaefer said. There is a Muslim prayer room, where students can pray for any of the five required prayers per day. The prayer room is closet-sized and can only fit about 10 people at a time. MSA holds Jum’ah -- Friday prayer -- there weekly.
The lack of space makes it difficult to build a sense of community, Rehman said. Schaefer said he hopes to repurpose spaces in Kay to make more room for Muslims to pray and gather.
Ahmad either prays inside the prayer room or in his bedroom on his prayer mat, he said. Lately, he’s been able to get home in time to pray, so he hasn’t used the room in Kay often this semester.
“I just wish it was larger so we could go and pray at one time together,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad is an Ahmadi Muslim, a minority denomination at AU. He attended an Ahmadi mosque in Bellevue, Washington, before transferring to AU. The prayer services here cater to Sunni Muslims, making it difficult for him to participate in religious observations through MSA, he said.
However, Ahmad said he appreciates the community that MSA provides.
“We all have something in common,” Ahmad said. “We pray the same way, we believe in essentially the same things, so it isn’t difficult to make connections there.”