By Lolla Mohammed Nur, Engage Minnesota
Every year, Muslim students at the University of Minnesota organize Islam Awareness Week, one of the largest events held by the Muslim community on campus for non-Muslim Minnesotans. Sponsored annually by the Muslim Students Association and Al-Madinah Cultural Center, Islam Awareness Week (IAW) has become a vibrant tradition usually filled with various events such as lectures, seminars, and featured entertainment. All are aimed at spreading awareness of Islam as a dynamic religion by presenting several contemporary issues from an Islamic perspective.
The theme of this year’s IAW was “Islam Contributing to U.S. National Interests.” Americans have been bombarded with negative images and ignorant labels about Islam and Muslims, which has made it difficult to sift through stereotypes and gain a better understanding of the religion.
“Furthering America’s interests”
“Our goal…was to bring in as many people of different faiths to teach them various aspects about Islam….IAW brought in many people of different faiths,” commented Sami Khwaja, the President of Al-Madinah Cultural Center.
The senior, who is a finance major, continued to explain, “Many people believe that Islam is a threat to the nation’s security and freedoms, yet fail to realize that Islamic principles can indeed be used to further our national interests, rather than deter them as a misunderstood and foreign faith. For instance, one of the events dealt with the current financial crisis, and how Islamic banking with its interest-free system could provide an alternative solution to the lackluster economy.”
This event had a great turnout, with most of the audience members being students at the Carlson School of Management. The speakers were Professor Felix Meschke, Dr. Mustapha Hamida, and Sheikh Wafiq Fanoun who each did a wonderful job presenting their viewpoint on the financial meltdown and what the possible solutions to it could be.
“Providing healthcare to Muslims”
Another event was a lecture on how doctors can provide better healthcare to Muslims by understanding certain Islamic beliefs and medical practices. The speaker, Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed, explained the Islamic belief that invisible beings called jinn can sometimes cause certain diseases like schizophrenia or severe stomach pains. Muslims believe that jinn live in the same intangible paradigm as angels do, and that illnesses caused by jinn can be treated by simultaneously using modern medicine as well as reciting verses of the Quran.
There was a large turnout to Dr. Mohamed’s lecture as well, the audience mostly comprising of medical school students.
“I personally loved the global healthcare lecture”, freshman and IAW volunteer Amina Adan said. “It was a funny and amazing talk. I learned [some] things myself, and I couldn’t ask for any better!”
“Women in Islam – understanding the context”
An always-popular event is the “Women in Islam” lecture, held by Imani Jaafar-Mohamed this year. She deftly clarified misconceptions about gender roles, women’s rights, and the woman’s status in Islam. Usually, the concept of women in Islam is the least understood by non-Muslims and one of the hardest concepts to clarify.
When asked what he would like to know more about Islam, freshman John Hooper said he “would like to know more about the religion and its beliefs itself, especially how [the beliefs] relate to women. I benefited a lot from attending,” Hooper continued, “because it gave me a better understanding of a religion I really don’t know that much about”.
Unfortunately, many people ignorant about the Qur’an have spread falsehoods about the treatment of women in Islam by taking verses out of context.
“You can’t study a religion in a vacuum”, emphasized Jaafar-Mohamed, addressing this issue several times during her lecture. “You have to look at the history and context of the religion – any religion”. She also stressed that many Islamic practices give women more options, be it in their married lives, at home, or in their working careers.
“Shari’ah and the Rule of Law”
The fourth lecture was titled “Islamic Shari’ah as the Rule of Law and U.S. foreign policy”. The speaker, University of Wisconsin Law school Professor Asifa Quraishi, broke down the concept of shari’ah (Islamic law) to its basics, emphasizing its dynamic and versatile structure which allows for debate and discussion between different schools of Islamic thought. She explained that there is no country that currently carries out its laws according to classical Islamic teachings, meaning there is no real Islamic state.
Gerardo Bonilla is a pre-med and political science double major who thought Professor Quraishi’s lecture “was really interesting because I like learning through political science. [It] helped me understand some of the background [of Islamic law] and put it into perspective.”
Bonilla says that as a non-Muslim American he sees and hears many stereotypes about Islam, but the things that help him understand the religion better are “what I’ve studied and the people I’m with. Like for example, I have friends that say “inshaAllah” [‘God willing’ in Arabic] and that’s really peaceful.” Bonilla says a highlight of IAW for him is that he “learned about how peaceful Islam is, how to worship”. But he wishes he “could learn about the path that the Prophet Muhammed took and learn more about the [basics of the] religion”.
Bonilla also attended the Poetry Jam which was the featured entertainment event of the week.
“Instead of people listening to a lecture, they were enlightened by poetry and spoken word, where Islamic themes ranged from status of women, to environmental care, and even the infamous topic of Jihad”, says Khwaja. The night was an overall success with performances by local Minnesota poets, some of whom attend the University, such as the student group Voices Merging.
“It was really nice to see the amateur poets who were writing from a Muslim perspective. [Their poems] incorporated their perspectives about the religion. It was a different perspective I usually don’t hear”, describes Bonilla. The main act of the night was Def poet Amir Sulaiman who passionately performed some of his infamous poems, like “Danger”.
“Ignorance leads to fear”
Overall, IAW was a huge success, with significant numbers of non-Muslim attendees and a grand total of $750 raised for local charities such as Tubman Family Alliance, Acheive! Minneapolis, Minnesota Future Doctors, and the Brian Coyle Center. However, Muslim students are still aware that most non-Muslims did not attend any IAW events, which is disappointing since the events are for them to gain knowledge about Islam.
“Of course we aren’t asking people to convert, but to just learn and defeat their ignorance. It’s being aware – that’s what we want,” explains Adan. She also commented on the racist and derogatory anonymous comments posted below the MN Daily’s online article covering the lecture on women in Islam: “Some people are happy with their ignorance…but, hey, there are haters where ever you go. We do what we got to do. I advise all those who can to come, especially if you want to gain something. It’s good to know your community and what’s around you, to be willing to accept it as it is.”
It’s true that some “people tend to fear and hate what they do not know or understand. People with a set, negative opinion of Islam usually fail to see that IAW’s purpose is not to convert people or to impose Islamic values on them,” Khwaja asserts.
“Islam is only growing in America,” he says. “In order for Muslims and non-Muslims to truly appreciate each other’s company, it is essential that they learn about each others’ faiths and backgrounds. IAW is a perfect avenue for non-Muslims to learn why Muslims hold their religion so close to their hearts.