The national Muslim Student Association is working with various campus organizations in Iowa and throughout the country to provide the increasing number of Muslim university students with permanent locations to fulfill their daily and weekly religious observations.
The Salah–obligatory prayers that Muslims must perform five times a day–is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and is considered the foundation for Muslim life.
“In any public institution, it’s very important for them to consider not only the needs or the wants of one religious group, but to represent all students and all different religions,” Uzair Siddiqui, project manager for the national association, said, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
The group is encouraging its local chapters on campuses to ask for prayer spaces, just as Christians or Jews have their own worship spaces.
At the University of Iowa (UI), Muslim students say it is often difficult to find quiet spaces five times per day to offer their daily prayers.
“It’s hard for us to give our full devotion to (Allah) during the Salah,” said Mohammed Ismail, a UI biochemistry major and event coordinator for the UI Muslim Student Association. “We might think of … our plan for the day, our classes, exams. … It is our duty as Muslims … to give Allah our full devotion and to concentrate on him.”
“We have students who go down into the engineering basement … or go behind the fifth-floor staircase to pray there,” said UI graduate student Moustafa Ibrahim. “It’s mainly because they are trying to find a place where there’s not much traffic so they don’t get weird looks from people.”
According to the Press-Citizen, UI officials say they try to accommodate all student faith-based groups. After recognition by the university’s Student Organization Review Committee, the student faith groups can reserve spaces for prayer at little to no cost.
Motier Haskins, faculty adviser to the student group at UI, said he has been searching for a permanent site for UI’s Muslim student population since 2007. Administrators allowed Danforth Chapel to be available for Muslim daily prayers, an idea that appeared ideal at first.
“We know that space is an issue at the University of Iowa,” Haskins said. “Everybody is looking for space. … So we were willing to take what they offered. It was private, it was clean, and it was as centrally located as possible.”
However, the configuration of the chapel–with benches, an altar, and a cross–was not a “neutral” religious space. The Muslim students reportedly needed an area in which they could spread out rugs and blankets and with sufficient room to sit, kneel, and stand during prayers.
Haskins says if Muslim students had a designated, permanent worship space, the numbers of students who come to prayers would double or triple the 40 students who currently attend.
At Iowa State University (ISU), Ahmed Kamal, faculty adviser to the Muslim student group, said many Muslim faculty and students travel to the Darul Aqum Islamic Center for Friday prayers.
Kamal said that while the Muslim student population on campus dropped after 9/11, the growth in ISU’s international population and overall student body has more than made up for the decline.
Similarly, a University of Northern Iowa (UNI) international student recruiter for the Middle East, Eshraq Alkhabbaz, stated that she books a meditation room in the school’s student union for prayers, but is working with the Muslim Student Association to find a permanent location for worship for the more than 300 Muslims there.
According to KWWL, the story of the search for permanent Muslim prayer spaces at UNI has caused controversy on Facebook, with some people asserting the Muslim students have a right to their religious freedom, and others saying they are receiving special treatment.
“I think they should build a prayer room to accommodate ALL faiths,” posted Alex Dittrich. “Not just to cater for one specific religion, but to all.”
Lorrie Martin wrote, “Baloney. We as Christians can pray anywhere. I will never support UNI as an alumni if they do this.”
“I don’t think we should spend money on an institution that reveres one religion based on separation of church and state,” said Jesse Moeller, a UNI graduate student.
“Allowing people to worship who they want to, that’s their freedom. That’s why we live in America,” said Jordan Miller, a UNI senior.
A university official said with over 300 different student groups on campus, providing one student group with a permanent place of worship is not feasible.