Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
After two years of inactivity, two students are breathing new life into The Muslim Student’s Association (MSA). Through re-establishing MSA on campus, Salman Safir ’16 and Karim Sariahmed ’13, aim to strengthen the Muslim student community and provide support for worship.
According to Safir, MSA is a group where any and all students can come to learn about Islam. “It’s intended to be a support group, a free space open and accepting to all.” Sariahmed said MSA’s goal is to create visibility and awareness for the Swarthmore Muslim community.
Safir said he was motivated to revive MSA last fall when he realized there was no room at Swarthmore to perform Friday prayers, which are mandatory for followers of Islam.
Safir was not alone in thinking Muslims have had difficulty practicing on campus. Sariahmed said that because his freshman orientation overlapped with Ramadan, an Islamic holy month that is observed by fasting from dawn to sunset, he felt he missed out on many social activities like hall dinner. Since then, he has worked to ensure Sharples makes take out boxes available during Ramadan, and even organized a Ramadan dinner his sophomore year.
But it was not until this fall, when Safir got in touch with Sariahmed, who was leading MSA at the time, that the group developed a clear path forward. The two had a chance to share thoughts during a fall retreat organized by the Intercultural and Black Cultural Centers, where they planned to get chartered and ask for funds.
Safir said they received strong support from Protestant Advisor Joyce Tompkins and Director of the Intercultural Center Alina Wong, who also serves as Dean of the Sophomore Class.
“I am thrilled that MSA is reviving this year,” Tompkins said. “They’ve been meeting again and asking for access to funds and a prayer room. I think it would be wonderful for the Muslim students on campus and for attracting more Muslim students to Swarthmore.”
Currently, “there’s a pretty regular group of a dozen people that comes to our biweekly meetings,” Safir said. MSA’s regular meetings take place every Friday at 1 pm in the Wellness Lounge. The meetings, like the rest of MSA’s events, are open to all Swatties.
During Garnet weekend, MSA hosted a dinner for Eid-ul-adha, one of the most important holidays in Islam. “Around 50 people showed up, including some faculty members and students from Haverford,” he said.
In the future, Safir hopes to plan more community-building events, such as movie nights and Quran study groups. “This year I want to try harder to engage the freshman and make upperclassmen available for support,” he said.
Tompkins said that when she first arrived at Swarthmore eight years ago, the MSA was very active and sponsored interfaith events like scriptural reasoning sessions, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish students gathered to read and study the Bible. Tompkins is hopeful that interfaith activity will increase in the future.
Sariahmed explained that the group’s activity faltered in the past couple of years because as senior leaders graduated, the remaining members organized fewer and fewer events. “As the semester goes on, membership falls off, because everyone has lots of different interests,” Sariahmed said.
Another reason the frequency of events dropped is that Muslim Swatties vary widely in their practices and commitment levels. Those who practice Islam in private are not always noticed by MSA, Sariahmed said.
“There are many enthusiastic [Muslim students] who don’t necessary practice it in a social manner,” he said. “It’s very private for them.”
Yousef Alhessi ’16, a member of MSA, said he would like to see more discussion of religion in everyday conversation, “Islam isn’t just a religion, it impacts every part of my life. [But] students at Swarthmore don’t really care about religion. They often discuss philosophy or science problems, but I don’t know why people feel uncomfortable talking about religion.” Alhessi contrasted Swarthmore with Gaza, where he grew up. There, he said, students analyze religion in school, where he learned how to judge his beliefs for himself.
“Religion to me is very personal,” Safir said. “I pray five times a day, and I try to think about it in all aspects of my life.” However, he thinks the campus community is a place where Islam can transcend individual habits. “Swarthmore is a very accepting community,” he said. “When I tell people I’m Muslim they give me more of a positive reaction that just ‘oh, okay.’ They’re more curious about it.”
Tompkins felt that the Administration could do more to support religious life and interfaith events, both of which she believes are currently on the margins of Swarthmore life. “Even the physical location of Bond Hall, [home to the Interfaith Center], is at the edge of campus,” she said.
She expressed interested in a dedicated prayer space closer to the center of campus. “The admissions office has called me to say, we have a prospective Muslim student visiting, can he come down to Interfaith Center for noontime prayers? And unfortunately, I had to say, no, we don’t have a space for that.”
“In an ideal world,” she said, there would also be a staff position for religion and spirituality as part of the Dean’s Office. Currently there are Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish advisors, but none for Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Part of the reason for that, Tompkins said, is their salary is paid by outside religious organizations, including the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Partners in Ministry, and Hillel.
Photo courtesy of The Muslim Students Association.