Muslim students find room to pray

Some are seeking an official nondenominational prayer or meditation space on campus, which could benefit the University community.

Muslim Student Association President and architecture senior Amer Sassila prays in a secluded area in Rapson Hall on Tuesday.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Muslim Student Association President and architecture senior Amer Sassila prays in a secluded area in Rapson Hall on Tuesday.

Marion Renault

Shortly after noon Friday, the room fell into an intent, reverent silence, interrupted only by the padding of shoeless feet on carpet and the occasional creaking of a door as latecomers trickled in.

More than 150 Muslim University of Minnesota students and employees filled the conference room for weekly community prayer on the third floor of Coffman Union at 12:30 p.m.

Throughout the week, students can be found spread across campus, tucked in hallway corners or kneeling in open courtyards for their daily prayers.

On Fridays, that prayer is meant to be shared. But many say the Coffman space reserved by the Muslim Student Association isn’t enough to accommodate the University’s Muslim population.

When hundreds show up for Friday prayer, they sometimes spill out into the hallway, said biology freshman Zoha Khatoon.

With a prayer ritual that involves repeated bowing and kneeling, Khatoon said they have to stagger their movements to deal with limited space. Most of the time, she said, it’s simply uncomfortable.

“It gets really hot,” Khatoon said. “And when you bend over, there’s not enough room to put your whole body down.”

The conference room, which is booked in advance for weekly use, and the Al-Madinah Cultural Center’s space on Coffman’s second floor are the only two spaces on campus offered specifically for Muslim prayer.

Though the Mayo Memorial Building on the University’s East Bank has a meditation room, there is no official nondenominational prayer or meditation space on campus, said University spokesman Steve Henneberry.

As a public institution, the University cannot make any special accommodations for religious groups, in accordance with the Board of Regents’ policy for Equity, Diversity, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

But some say a nondenominational prayer and meditation space could benefit the entire University community.

‘The whole world is a place to pray’

Five times a day, observant Muslims wash their faces, hands and feet before beginning their prayer and its series of prostrations. The whole process takes only five minutes.

“It’s a very informal thing but a very personal thing,” said Nabil Matar, an English professor who teaches a course on Islam each spring.

Because each prayer is meant to occur in a certain window of time, Matar said he’ll shift the breaks in his lectures so his Muslim students can leave the classroom to pray.

But daily prayers are rarely integrated so easily into a student’s hectic schedule, said psychology junior and Muslim Student Association Vice President Rima Ali.

Though she tries to make use of Al-Madinah’s Coffman space, Ali said she normally prays in hallways and stairwells. When one of her classes in Folwell Hall last year coincided with a prayer time, Ali said she tucked herself away in a space near the elevators during the few minutes she had before class.

“I’d put my coat on the ground and pray on my coat, basically,” she said.

But Ali said having to pray in public doesn’t bother her or most other Muslim students.

“We don’t like to complain,” she said. “If we have to pray in a hallway, we’ll pray in a hallway.”

Some say non-Muslim students might not be used to seeing others pray in public.

“Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for you and for others because they don’t know what you’re doing, and … you don’t want to disturb the peace,” said graduate nursing student Amran Ahmed. “The tricky part is that you have to do your prayers. You have to choose what’s more important, and for me, it’s obviously the prayer.”

Mathematics senior Azhar Abdusebur said he sometimes feels the gazes of other students when he prays in public.

“If I pray in an awkward place, people might stare,” he said. “You kind of get used to it after a while. It’s just that people really don’t know what you’re doing.”

MSA President Amer Sassila said he prays every day at a specific spot in Rapson Hall, where all his architecture classes are housed.

Although praying in a group is more rewarding in the Muslim faith, Sassila said, he’s come to find peace in his corner of the Rapson basement.

“I made myself a little sanctuary,” he said. “That’s the nice part about being a Muslim: The whole world is a place to pray.”

‘Ongoing complaints’ about congregational space

In the Islamic tradition, men are required and women are encouraged to pray as a congregation on Fridays. But the room MSA currently reserves seats only 54, according to the Coffman website.

“We have so many mosques all over Minneapolis that you can go to,” Ali said. “But on campus, that’s the only Friday prayer that’s provided.”

That’s what draws hundreds of Muslim students and University employees to the weekly prayer hosted by MSA, she said. The group now provides two times for prayer — one at 12:30 p.m. and one at 1:15 p.m. — to accommodate the crowd.

Sassila said he’s had many requests from students for a bigger space for Friday prayer.

It can be difficult to make the most of the space they do have, Ali said. While praying, Muslims need to face the direction of Mecca, which happens to be a corner of the rectangular room, so diagonal rows of people don’t fill it efficiently.

The fact that men and women need to be separated for prayer aggravates the problem, she said.

“[It’s] really narrow, so the guys and girls are really close together,” Ali said. “A lot of girls aren’t coming to this room because they don’t feel comfortable.”

MSA has been attempting to address these needs as it secures space for the upcoming semester.

The conference room is already booked for 10 of 14 weeks next semester, Sassila said, so MSA will instead rent out Grace University Lutheran Church on Harvard Street Southeast.

The group will pay about $50 per week to use the church for Friday prayer. The Coffman space was free.

Because of that extra expense, on top of upcoming events that Sassila said will be costly, MSA will request $10,000 in the next student services fees cycle.

“We’ve done it before,” he said, “but it hasn’t been done in a while.”

Mechanical engineering senior Omar Alamy said space wasn’t such an issue when he began attending Friday prayers as a freshman.

“It’s getting really tight,” he said. “I feel like four years ago it wasn’t as bad, but people keep coming.”

Sassila said space will always be an issue for practicing Muslims at the University.

“It’s always going to be full,” he said. “Even if we got a bigger space, more people would show up, and it’s eventually going to overcrowd.”

A call for meditation space

Some say an on-campus nondenominational prayer and meditation space would benefit people of all beliefs.

Gary Sands, a bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor, said he’d like to see a nondenominational space on the St. Paul campus to complement the East Bank prayer space.

“As faculty, I have the luxury of my own office [for prayer],” he said, “but it’s not so easy for students of all faiths.”

Between her nursing courses, graduate student Ahmed said she often uses the Mayo Memorial Building’s meditation room for her Islamic prayer.

Ahmed said she thinks having spaces open to all prayer and meditation has benefits, like learning from others about their faith.

“When it’s a meditation room, you bring different people all in one space,” she said. “It’s a platform for many conversations to happen.”

Ahmed said she’d like to see a meditation room on campus, even just for students who want a quiet space to think.

“That space can be shared by so many different people, so many different religious backgrounds,” she said. “You have a place that is secluded yet open.”