By Farhan Iqbal, Engineering Undergraduate, Western Michigan University
Islam is the worldâ€™s second largest religion, and has shown a significant increase over the last decade in many countries across the globe, including the United States. Recognizing the need for education about this growing faith, the Comparative Religion Department at Western Michigan University recently brought Dr. Alisa Perkins, a specialist in Islam in America, onto its faculty. I enrolled in Dr. Perkinsâ€™ Islam in America seminar the first time she offered it at Western, in Fall 2013. As an international Muslim student from Pakistan, and a second year Aerospace Engineering major at Western, I was eager to learn about how Americans view Islam and about Muslimsâ€™ experiences in America. I thought this class would be a good way for me to get my questions answered.
Dr. Alisa Perkins (third from right) walks to Kalamazoo Islamic Center with WMU Students
Early in the semester, I proposed the idea of a class visit to the mosque, and my classmates agreed that this would be a great experience, not just for us, but for other interested members of the campus and surrounding community. Excited by the enthusiasm of my peers, I began planning the event with the help of Dr. Perkins, Imam Hafiz Nauman from the Kalamazoo Islamic Center, and members of the WMU Muslim Student Association.
The event was held on Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 10 a.m. Even though it was the first snow flurry of the season, several dozen people including WMU students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Kalamazoo community braved the cold to meet in front of Waldo Library for the event. â€œWe thought it was a good idea to walk from the center of campus to the mosque together,â€ Dr. Perkins explained. â€œThis would give participants a sense of the close proximity of the two institutions, which are about a third of a mile apart. It would also allow non-Muslim students to share the short but meaningful journey that some of their Muslim peers make every day.â€
Arriving at the mosque, were welcomed by Imam Hafiz , Muslim Student Association members, and others from the Kalamazoo Islamic Center who had volunteered for the event. Imam Hafiz gave us a tour of the mosque which included the menâ€™s and womenâ€™s prayer halls, the Sunday school classrooms where children and teen-agers are instructed in Arabic language and the Holy Qurâ€™an, and the social gathering rooms. He gave us a brief introduction on Islam and how Muslims pray, including an explanation of the reasons for gender division at the mosque. Alex Gibson, a WMU pre-major in Global and International Studies and Arabic, commented, â€œI liked the imamâ€™s explanation of why men and women were separated. It was to respect women and limit distractions of the opposition sex so one can focus on God.â€
After the tour, Imam Hafiz invited everyone to sit with him in a large circle for discussion, and to help themselves to hot drinks and snacks. A lively conversation followed, concerning topics such as the connections between Islam and other Abrahamic faiths; misconceptions about Islam in the media; the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the history of Kalamazoo Islamic Center, which was founded in 1972 by students from Western Michigan University. In relation to this, Imam Hafiz Nauman revealed a fact that surprised many of the visitors: He himself had been a WMU student not too long ago, and in fact had graduated with an advanced degree in engineering in 2005.
In my opinion, when people get to know others from different backgrounds face to face, it improves understanding more so than just reading about others or watching films about them. Also, when people experience something for themselves, such as a mosque visit, it makes a deeper impression then simply hearing about what that would be like. Unfortunately, many non-Muslims do not have any access to information about Islam or its followers outside of the mass media, which is not always the best source of unbiased information. â€œIt was wonderful to hear an imam speak about Islam in person as opposed to hearing the media rattle off about the â€œMiddle Eastâ€ or â€œterrorism,â€ commented WMU Honors College and Comparative Religion major Rachael Pulice. â€œEveryone there at the mosque was very kind and open. This made a wonderful representation, in my opinion, of genuine Islam.â€
Organizing this event was important to me for many reasons but perhaps most significant was that it was a way for me to help give my fellow students the chance to gain a kind of knowledge that they might not have had otherwise. â€œI never would have gone to the mosque on my own,â€ WMU nursing student Maggie Murgittroyd explained. â€œThis is in part because I know it is a holy place, but also because it was an unknown. Imam Hafiz was incredibly approachable. He gave meaningful responses to our questions. He had a great deal of knowable about religious history, or history in general about the local community. I really enjoyed going hope to continue to learn more about Islam.â€
The success of the first mosque visit prompted me and the other organizers to make it an ongoing event taking place once every semester. I plan to minor in Comparative Religion minor at WMU, and continue to cooperate with Dr. Perkins and Imam Hafiz Nauman in organizing these campus and community-wide visits. In fact, our second visit to Kalamazoo Islamic Center is coming up on March 20, 2014. Like last time, we will meet in front of Waldo library at 10 a.m. The event is free and open to all. Please check out the comparative religion website for more information on this program, which is part of WMUâ€™s Islam Global Forum initiative: http://www.wmich.edu/religion. I hope to see you there!