Amherst Life Blog

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Islam in Amherst

Seeking the Face of Islam in Amherst
by Niina Heikkinen

Sometimes I wonder if I have an FBI file. I wonder if someone monitors my phone and Internet conversations to evaluate how I as a female, 20 year old Catholic college student could be a threat to this nation. You may think that I am having delusions of grandeur. Well, you might be right. But what if I told you that every day I talk online with Muslim friends from Afghanistan? That changes things, doesn’t it? Bring up the words Muslim or Islam in this country and you will get a variety of reactions. Some people will immediately think of war, extremism, terrorists.

For others, these words provide images of comfort, faith and community. I fell somewhere in the middle, slightly wary of a religion in which women appeared to exist in a second tier, but knowing that extremism is exactly that--an extreme part of religion which emphasizes the importance of peace and non-violence.

My own exploration of Islam started on the bookshelves of the Jones Library. I read: My name is Iran, Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Bliss, and Prisoner of Tehran. I plodded through a dense book on early Islamic history to learn about Mohammed, his first followers and to understand the difference between being Sunni or Shia. My reading was eclectic and not strictly about religion. Yet through the stories, both real and fictional I started to build a new picture of what it means to be Muslim.

There is only so much that you can learn from books. I needed to experience Islam. An opportunity to do this presented itself in the middle of October when the Muslim Students Association hosted an Eid celebration at the UMass campus center. Eid marks the end of Ramadan’s forty days of fasting: during Eid, Muslims break their fast together, celebrate with friends and family, and reflect on how the lessons of Ramadan can be carried out throughout the year. Sitting at a candlelit table with a group of Muslim women, I had the unusual feeling of being a minority, this is what it must be like to be Muslim in Christian America.

One day, one of the officers of the Muslim Students Association invited me to attend one of the Friday prayer services that are hosted by the club. What better way to learn about Islam? I felt like I was doing something elicit as I headed to the basement of the campus center. I found the prayer room easily but then I stood frozen for ten minutes before I gathered the courage to go in.

The first thing I noticed as I walked in was the set-up of the room. Men prayed in the front, sitting, standing or kneeling on long strips of white cloth, arranged at a diagonal so that they would be praying east, towards Mecca. I counted thirty men altogether. There were two rows set up towards the back of the room for the eight women present, but most chose to sit against the back wall. Part of the prayer was in Arabic, but everything is translated into English so I could follow what was happening. If I closed my eyes I could imagine myself sitting in the Newman Center, listening to Catholic priest instead of a Muslim student leading the prayer.

Islam is not nearly as foreign as I expected. Attending the Muslim prayer service, I felt the same calm that I do when I attend Mass. How do I reconcile this feeling with the suspicion that Islam generates in this country? My search for the true face of Islam continues.
Niina Heikkinen is a student in the Commonwealth College Honor's Program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. We are grateful for her contribution to the Amherst Life Blog and look forward to reading more of her work. Please post any comments or questions for Ninna below.


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