Contrary to popular belief, Islam is a very spiritual and introspective religion. Those who choose to walk the path of Islam are required to offer prayers five times per day. The prayer joins body and soul and is performed at specific times of the day, every day, in sickness and in health, until the Angel of Death is commanded to take their soul.
The goal of prayer and all other rituals in Islam are to develop good character. The worshipper is bringing whatever he or she did in front of his or her creator during prayer and asking for blessings and forgiveness.
This process of accounting for themselves makes them very self-conscious about what they do, because it will go with them as baggage when they step in front of their creator. When this process is absent in the worshipper’s imagination, prayer becomes a mechanical exercise rather than a spiritual workout.
So, praying five times per day means Muslim students have to offer some of their prayers while on campus. Finding a private area to kneel and make prostrations while being out and about is not very easy, but the University has a few amenities to facilitate this challenge. The biggest is Al-Madinah Cultural Center in Coffman Union, where Muslim students, who come here from all over the world, socialize and offer their prayers. The smaller amenities are quiet corners and small conference rooms.
But a busy student doing research, who cannot take the time to walk from Wilson Library to Coffman, has to find a corner or an empty room to fulfill their obligation to pray. So, if you see an individual or a group of people in a corner prostrating with their foreheads on the floor, they are not looking for something under the table, nor are they meditating to do something evil.
Praying individually in a corner is unnerving for many Muslims; they feel somewhat embarrassed and on edge that someone will interrupt them. When praying in a group, nerves are calm and the group confident. This prayer is somewhat akin to the Western idea of meditation. During a Muslim’s prayer, he or she is to be in tune with the divine during this span of five minutes or so, and cannot break contact until ritually broken with a turning of the head to the right and left.
The generous tolerance level on campus creates a very congenial atmosphere. This congeniality is put to the test on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. Hundreds of Muslims are on campus and most strive to perform the congregational prayer required on this day.
This presents the challenge of trying to fit 300 people in a cleared-out room each week. Auditoriums do not work and few rooms exist on campus to accommodate this large host. The rooms that are large enough are often booked at the desired time (12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.). But we make do and things work out, though shoes and backpacks often spill out into the hallways, and sometimes people too.
So, if you run onto such a scene, don’t be puzzled; it’s just Muslims doing their thing.
Adeel Ahmed is a public policy graduate student at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He welcomes comments at [email protected]