Inter-religious ed: Muslims at Catholic colleges and universities

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A growing number of Muslim students are putting their faith in Catholic universities.

As a senior at Loyola University in Chicago, Mariam Choudhry is well aware of her school’s Catholic identity. She sees it in the crucifixes hanging on every classroom wall, in the faces of the Jesuit priests walking through campus, and, of course, she’s seen it when visiting the university’s Madonna della Strada Chapel.

Thanks in part to Loyola’s focus on spirituality, Choudhry has attended retreats and faith discussions and dedicated many hours to community service and campus ministry. All in all, she says, her faith has grown tremendously.

Much of that, she believes, is thanks to the university’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), a group she has been active with since her freshman year. Choudhry, a practicing Muslim, is currently vice president.

Before coming to Loyola, Choudhry knew very little about Catholicism, other than what she picked up from pop culture and books like The DaVinci Code. Her reasons for choosing the university had more to do with finances than its Catholic identity.

Now that she’s taken classes taught by priests and befriended her Catholic classmates, Choudhry has a much deeper understanding of Catholicism. After attending public schools her whole life, she says she enjoys being in an atmosphere where religion is embraced. She’s even attended prayer services, like the Taizé service held on campus every Wednesday.

“It was really nice,” Choudhry says. “I had never attended any other service outside of the mosque before. The only reason I did attend was because it was available on campus.”

By enrolling in an “Introduction to Islam” class, she’s learned about her own faith as well.

“I’ve always learned Islam from a religious setting, so I wanted to see it from an academic perspective,” she says. “I learned a lot about Islam in that class, and I have been Muslim my whole life.”

While Choudhry knows her faith is not the norm at her Jesuit-run university, she says she has never felt out of place.

“Loyola is a home to all faiths,” she says. “You learn so much, not only from your own faith, but also from the other faiths that surround you.”

The experience of students like Choudhry has become more and more common at Catholic colleges and universities around the country within the past decade. An annual study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles shows that about 5 percent of freshmen at Catholic colleges and universities identify themselves as members of a non-Christian religion.

While it is difficult to know for sure exactly how many of those students are Muslim, since not all campuses track the religious affiliations of students, in recent years many schools have noticed an increasing presence of Muslim students.

“We know that many Catholic campuses have been experiencing significant increases in enrollment by Muslim students, who recognize the inclusive, welcoming environment that they find at a Catholic university,” says Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

Take Catholic University of America in Washington. There the number of Muslim students doubled in only four years—rising from 56 to 122 between 2007 and 2011. Loyola University Chicago has also seen an increase. In 2004 the Chicago Tribune reported the total number of Muslims students there to be 300. This year the Loyola MSA received a list of 211 Muslim students in the freshman class alone. According to Choudhry, more than 300 Muslim students attended the MSA’s annual welcome dinner in September.

The new numbers have resulted in both challenges and opportunities for Catholic universities. While administrators must decide how best to accommodate Muslim students, the students—both Catholic and otherwise—are enriched by the opportunity to learn about Islam firsthand.

Campus ministry

One of the biggest ways Catholic universities are reaching out to support Muslim and non-Catholic students is by providing prayer spaces where students can worship according to their own faith traditions without being surrounded by Catholic imagery.

At some schools non-Catholic students are given access to nondenominational interfaith prayer spaces. Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, for instance, has both a multifaith sanctuary for religious gatherings and a smaller soundproof meditation room, which is stocked with ottomans, prayer rugs, and writings from various religious traditions.

At universities with greater numbers of students practicing Islam, Muslims are given prayer spaces specifically designed for them. At Loyola, Muslims can worship in a student-run mosque in the Mundelein Center, alongside classrooms, conference rooms, and an auditorium.

And since 2009 Muslim students at DePaul University in Chicago have had a home in the Lincoln Park Muslim Life Center, located in the student center. Consisting of a prayer room, a lounge area, and a chaplain’s office, the center is intended to be a place for Muslim prayer, study, and socializing. 

Abdul-Malik Ryan, a graduate of DePaul’s class of 1995, serves as the part-time chaplain for the university’s more than 700 Muslim students. Every week he plans discussion groups and classes, leads Friday prayers, and advises the 150-member student group, United Muslims Moving Ahead (UMMA).

Though official numbers haven’t indicated a large increase in Muslim students at DePaul, Ryan believes the Muslim community is much more visible now than when he was a student. At that time, UMMA was in its earliest stages, with only 20 to 25 students involved. Now, he says, the Muslim students are thriving.

“The center is pretty much full all the time during the week with people talking or hanging out. The prayer space is always available and the Friday prayers regularly have up to 50 people attending,” Ryan says. “I think the Muslim students over time have really established a reputation as being some of the most active students on campus. . . . They are open to interfaith activities, very committed to their faith, but respectful of others.”

So why is it so important for Catholic universities to reach out to these Muslim students? Mark Laboe, assistant vice president of university ministry at DePaul, believes ministering to non-Catholic students is a reflection of the early days of Catholic education in America. DePaul, he says, was founded initially as a reaction to religious discrimination against Catholic and Jewish immigrants.

“We were founded on this sense of anyone being welcome here, regardless of religious background,” Laboe says. “We talked about there being no religious litmus test for people to come to DePaul —from the beginning, a Catholic institution that’s not just for Catholics.”

Jesuit Father Jack Treacy, director of campus ministry at Santa Clara University, believes serving those of other religions goes back to the very fundamentals of Catholicism. “I speak to every new student at orientation sessions and I tell them, if you hear nothing else from me, know that whatever your religious tradition, if any, you are welcomed, honored, and affirmed on our campus,” Treacy says.

“That’s our baseline for operations on campus ministry,” he says. “Here we are at the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, which changed the mentality from fear or a discounting of other faiths and really shifted to one of reverence for other faiths. I think that one of the real gifts of Catholicism is the fact that we’ve stated very explicitly that we do recognize those who have other paths to God as holy and worthy of our love and our regard.”

‘A safe space’

Those welcoming attitudes are certainly appreciated by students like Dana Jabri, a practicing Muslim and DePaul sophomore. She was first attracted to her university because of its emphasis on community service. Since coming to DePaul, she has grown to appreciate how accepting the students and faculty are of her religious beliefs.

That’s important for Jabri, who wears a head scarf and, though she frequents the school’s prayer space, is not afraid to say her prayers in an empty corner of campus if necessary.

“Because it’s a type of religious institution, DePaul embraces the idea of religion in and of itself,” Jabri says. “I think people see that as important in this time and age. It’s a safe space, a place to say, ‘I have a faith journey and you do, too, even if it’s not the same.’ ”

That’s not to say some Catholic schools haven’t had complaints about accommodating Muslim students. At Catholic University of America in Washington, controversy came in 2011 when a lawsuit was filed that alleged discrimination against Muslim students because of a lack of Muslim prayer rooms or a university-recognized Muslim student group.

But while the lawsuit made headlines in Washington, university officials say it did not reflect the actual experiences of Muslim students on campus. The suit was filed by John F. Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University known for filing dozens of human rights complaints, and the Washington Post reported that Banzhaf had not actually received any grievances about the matter from Catholic University students. University president John Garvey issued a statement calling the lawsuit a “manufactured controversy” and reiterated that no student had filed any complaint with the university regarding the free exercise of religion on campus.

Reef Al Shabnan, who received her master’s degree in political science from Catholic University this summer, certainly didn’t feel any discrimination as a Muslim student. In fact, she believes her school’s Catholic identity helped her to maintain her faith through the college years.

For Al Shabnan, the signs of Catholic life she saw on campus—the bells ringing from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the priests and religious walking around campus, and the Catholic references in class discussions—were reminders to reconnect with her own religious practices. “Being a religious school, there’s a religious environment and practicing religion is expected,” she says. “A lot of students are practicing religion in some shape or form, so praying on campus wasn’t a problem really, in terms of getting weird stares or something.”

Making the adjustment

Still, practicing Islam at a Catholic university is not entirely without challenges. Ryan believes the issues faced by Muslim students on Catholic campuses are often the same ones they would face at a public university. He says common difficulties include financial strain—due to Islamic traditions which discourage Muslims from taking out loans—and resisting temptation in college settings where drinking and partying may be the norm. (Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol.)

If they are coming from conservative backgrounds, Muslim students can sometimes be taken aback by the casual gender interactions on campus. DePaul senior Saifa Hussain remembers feeling awkward when asked to hold hands with a male classmate during a freshman year “getting-to-know-you” activity. And when Choudhry went off to college at Loyola, she had to find an off-campus apartment where she could live since her family considered staying in a co-ed dorm to be out of the question.

Other problems stem from political tensions on campus, Ryan says. Often that tension is due to misconceptions about Islam related to terrorism, like the events of September 11. For some students, the college years are the first time they might have to deal with these stereotypes and respond to them.

“You always feel like you’re in the spotlight and people are examining you since September 11, and that is heightened every time a new event like that happens,” Ryan says. “It is something that young people forming their identity have to deal with. Even if a lot of people aren’t asking you about it or telling you about it, you kind of have to ask yourself, ‘What would I say?’ ”

That thought was echoed by Mohamad Kanaan, who graduated from Catholic University in May 2012 with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. Originally from Saudi Arabia, Kanaan lived in Lebanon before moving to the United States. He chose Catholic University for its engineering program and because he was interested in experiencing other religions.

While there, he was impressed with how open and accommodating the university was to Muslim students. Still, he did have occasional run-ins with people who equated Islam with terrorism.

Because of situations like that, Kanaan says he learned that Muslim students must be open to other viewpoints since, in many ways, they are representatives of their religion on campus. Sometimes in classes he’s been asked questions which he found offensive, but he says he tried to answer them respectfully so as not to reflect poorly on Islam.

“You have to be open-minded because by answering those questions (negatively), you’re not going to hurt yourself, but you’re going to hurt the Muslim perspective,” Kanaan says.

Learning through conversation

Muslim students say they are often asked about Islam by their classmates. During her time at DePaul, Hussain has been challenged through conversations with classmates of other religions. As a result, she has asked questions she had never even thought about before—questions about difficult topics like death and salvation. She’s also been exposed to different ideas about Islam and had to consider how to fit them into her life.

“Before I went to DePaul, I probably had a more narrow version of God,” Hussain says. “Now I’ve learned this idea of thinking outside the box and challenging everything before you know what you believe in. The more you interact with different things, the more questions you may have that you never really thought about before.”

Seher Siddiqee, a junior at Santa Clara, encourages her friends to question her about Islam. 

“I try to keep it open,” she says. “I say, ‘Ask me any question and I really won’t get offended.’ I really try to emphasize that it’s an open space, and I really try to be open and honest with my experience and my faith.”

Siddiqee says that talking about her faith with other students has helped her to better understand her own beliefs. Sometimes she doesn’t know the answers right away and is forced to do more research, which helps her learn.

“My faith and my journey is continually changing because of those interactions,” she says. “I feel like all of the discussions are fruitful to me because I get to ask questions and so do they.”

The Rev. Aimee Moiso, director of interfaith and ecumenical ministries at Santa Clara, believes interfaith discussions can be valuable to college students, who are often still growing into their belief systems.

“The biggest way I think students grow and change in engagement with someone different than them is that they clarify what their beliefs are,” she says.

“If we hang out with a bunch of people with whom we agree, we don’t often get to question ourselves. [These conversations] tend to sharpen our way of thinking and broaden our understanding of ourselves in a way we never expected.”

Interreligious benefits

In addition to learning about Islam, Siddiqee says those conversations have taught her a lot about what it means to be Catholic. “In high school I feel like I learned the basic principles of Catholicism, and I think Santa Clara has really allowed me to see those principles put into practice. It has shown me what it means to be Catholic and the different ways individuals incorporate Catholicism into their lives,” she says.

At Catholic University Al Shabnan says she had lots of interaction with other non-Muslim students. In classes for her major she only knew of one other Muslim. And on a study abroad trip, she traveled with a group of mostly devout Catholics, who on Easter taught her about Good Friday and the resurrection. By spending so much time with Catholic students, she learned how diverse the faith can be.

“Most of my friends from my major are not Muslim. They’re not all Catholics, but some of them are, and even the Catholics are not all the same,” she says. “They’re divided between pro-choice and pro-life, Democrat and Republican.”

Hussain says she was drawn to DePaul because of the school’s focus on political and social consciousness. During her time as a student, she has really learned to embrace the Catholic ideals of the school, which are drawn from the life and teachings of St. Vincent DePaul.

“I really like the idea of doing good works and being ambassadors in this world by helping humanity and helping creation, and that’s really a part of the faith,” she says. “It’s not just about me having a certain belief system, it’s about serving, and that’s something that really resonated with me being Muslim. Serving others and doing good works for other people is about two thirds of the Quran.”

Laboe believes the presence of the Muslim and other non-Catholic students on campus can also benefit Catholic students. Muslim students, in particular, can be a good example because of their reverence for the divine and their dedication to prayer.

“Our Muslim students have helped us here at DePaul become better Catholics and better people of faith, partly because they have shown us faith is something you don’t have to hide when you walk in the door, that you can become a person of faith and not be ashamed, that you can be a person of faith and pray often,” he says.

“College campuses, even at Catholic universities, are not necessarily places where people feel comfortable showing their religion publicly,” says Ryan. “I think when other students see that, it enables them to feel more comfortable doing the same thing—talking about their faith, showing their faith, and realizing there’s no reason to be shy.”

Conversion experience

On the other hand, of course, there is the question of conversions. Laboe has heard the concern that by exposing Catholic students to the religious beliefs of others, they might lose their faith or end up leaving the church.

From time to time it does happen. Before becoming DePaul’s Muslim chaplain, Ryan grew up Catholic and converted to Islam as a DePaul student. His conversion, he says, was entirely self-driven. He had stopped practicing his faith before setting foot on campus, and his interests in African American history and the life of Malcolm X eventually led him to Islam.

Though conversions do happen occasionally, Ryan says experiences like his are not the norm. More often, non-Muslim students involved with UMMA come for nonreligious reasons. They may be studying Islam or tagging along with a friend. In typical college fashion, some come primarily for free food.

No matter what their motivation is, though, both Laboe and Ryan believe students should be given the opportunity to think for themselves, to question what they believe and to explore other traditions. Though some students may eventually switch religions, Laboe finds more often that the interfaith dialogue ends up renewing a person’s commitment to their own religion and helping them become “religiously mature adults.” 

“I think that exposure (to other religions) calls them back to deepen their understanding of their own faith and deepens their own desire to understand a little bit more who they are and what they are about,” Laboe says.

Part of what comes with being a religiously mature adult is understanding and respecting what other people believe. Moiso believes it is necessary for students to understand other faith traditions so that after college, they can become informed voices in their chosen fields.

“In this day and age people need to be religiously literate,” she says. “They need to know what religions believe and what they are about. They need to understand the relationship between religion and culture, which makes a big difference in immigrant communities. Being able to be fluent in all of those different areas is critical to being successful in this world and being peacemakers.”

In her time at Loyola Choudhry says she has benefited greatly from the interactions with her classmates of other faith traditions. After college she hopes to earn her medical degree and eventually provide medical care for those living in impoverished areas. She believes the interfaith encounters she’s had as a college student will make a difference in how she treats her patients.

“When I go into one-on-one contact with patients, I’m not going to go in having those misconceptions that I might have initially had, and I think that will clear a lot of explaining the individual would have had to do,” she says. “[This interfaith dialogue] really opens your eyes to the diversity, and shows that just because you are Catholic or Muslim or whatever, there is so much more to you than just that faith label.” 

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of  U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 2, pages 12-17).

Image: Tom A. Wright