Muslim students find community outside of Emerson

, Beacon Correspondent/strong

For Emerson graduate student Zaynah Qutubuddin, knowing when to pray is easy: There’s an app for that. As a creative writing candidate and a practicing Muslim, Qutubuddin must strike a balance between her scholarly and spiritual duties.

Prayer is conducted five times during the day, with each session corresponding to the sun’s movements. Muslims must face Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad where the Quran was written, during devotion. The Islamic Prayer Times by AppFlute, free on her Android phone, alerts her to the precise times she should be praying and provides a compass to determine which direction to look toward. Qutubuddin normally prays in the comfort of her apartment, but prayer time will, on occasion, fall during a class period.

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Zaynah

“Sometimes, during the class break, I’ll just come home to pray. But it is difficult, because you don’t want to leave class, and the break sometimes doesn’t always come during prayer time,” Qutubuddin said.

She has had to come up with unique places to practice, including a yoga studio, the corner of a bookstore, and even in the car, she said.

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The framework for Muslim life is based on the Five Pillars of Islam. Salat, or prayer, is a an essential component of Islam and one of the Five Pillars.

“You also have the grounding foundations, having faith [Shahdah] in general, and believing in one God and that Muhammad was the last prophet,” Qutubuddin said. There is also Sawm, fasting as recognized by the Quran; the Zakat, or the practice of charitable giving; and Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Islam is the largest religion in the world. Emerson doesn’t have an organization for Muslim students to come together and share their faith, but both Qutubuddin and Najah Muhammad, a sophomore performing arts major and fellow practicing Muslim, haven’t found that to be much of a problem. Muhammad discovered other ways to stay in touch with her community.

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Najah

“There’s not a lot of practicing Muslims [at Emerson], from what I know, and it can be kind of tough because you want to surround yourself with people that believe in the same things as you,” Muhammad said. She has been able to meet other Muslims in the Boston area after attending events at schools that have Muslim Student Associations, like Suffolk University.

Qutubuddin was born in the U.S. and her family originates from Bangladesh. During her time as an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, Qutubuddin was president of the Muslim Student Association. The group had an email list with over 200 members, and an even larger presence on their Facebook group. The organization would have weekly speakers and dinners pertaining to holidays such as Eid-ul-Fitr, a holiday which marks the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. The library at VCU had a section set aside for prayer, which Qutubuddin described as “a small carpeted area where students could pray in between studying.”

She said it would be nice to have something like this on campus, or perhaps an interfaith room where people of all religions could come and pray.

Despite the lack of a strong Muslim community on campus, Muhammad commends the level of religious tolerance at Emerson.

“Everyone is very accepting of my beliefs and my way of life, so it’s really good. I’m able to talk about it if I want to,” Muhammad said.

Both ladies wear hijab — a headscarf worn by Muslim women. Qutubuddin started wearing hijab about six years ago and views it as a commitment to her faith.

“Walking around, I am like the icon of Islam. If anyone sees me, they will be like, ‘Oh, there goes that Muslim girl.’ They don’t know anything about me, but it’s just that I stand out,” Qutubuddin said. “If you are expressing yourself, why can’t I express myself by covering my body, wearing my scarf, and doing my prayers?”

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Zaynah

For Muhammad, wearing hijab is a practice picked up from her mother, who also dons the daily headscarf. Both of Muhammad’s parents, who are African-American, converted to Islam, and her father is an Imam, which means he leads worship services. Over the years, she grew to accept wearing hijab as a part of her daily life.

“Now, I wear it because it just feels right. That’s definitely one of the things, covering up and not exposing parts of my body, is one way that I am showing a commitment to my faith every single day,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad said her peers at Emerson have been accepting of her decision to wear hijab.

“Some people just think it’s style. Some people have said, ‘is that for religion or is that for swag?’ And I think it is a little bit of both,” Muhammad said. She said most people are interested in learning about the religion and don’t put her down for her faith.

“Islam is a part of me and I am a part of it. I wouldn’t be the Najah that everyone loves if I wasn’t Muslim,” Muhammad said.

Qutubuddin and Muhammad are both Sunni Muslim, but said that the distinction isn’t a big deal as most Muslims just identify as Muslim and not by the denomination. Both women were born into the faith, and said that they will continue to practice for the rest of their lives.

“What I find really interesting and intriguing about Islam is that you will sort of find it anywhere. There are Muslims of every color and every nationality,” Qutubuddin said. “A lot of people have this predisposed notion that Arabs are the only Muslims, or that your skin color has to be brown and your hair is black and you have to have a beard. That is sort of the stereotypical physical description of a Muslim, but that is not true at all.”

emLazzaro can be reached at alicia_lazzaro@emerson.edu./em

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