Going through the turbulent process of adjusting to a new setting in a foreign land, I realized that Islam is not just a set of rules that I follow, but rather it is my guide, my philosophy and my lifestyle. But when I decided to come to Williams, I was not aware of the problems I would face in my religious life.
At Williams, I found a group of friends who were sincere in their beliefs and quickly became my source of support in unfamiliar territory. Soon enough, however, our ability to help each other spiritually reached its limits. Discussions started to run in vicious circles as none of us had the range of knowledge to talk authoritatively on the subjects we discussed. Being unable to balance religious duties with worldly requirements made life tougher for most of us. We tried to come up with answers and solutions; we even started inviting scholars from cities close by to come and lecture at Williams.
Every time we succeeded in bringing a speaker to campus, I would get excited and try to build up enough spiritual reserve from the lecture to last me a month. As people of faith know, one cannot “store” spirituality to last a given amount of time. Islam, especially, is about consistency and regularity. Thinking about religion and practicing it heavily over the weekend and then putting it to the side during the week while trying to deal with schoolwork was definitely not helping me feel like a good Muslim.
Islam is a social religion that endorses congregational practices. Despite how much we tried, except on exceptional religious occasions like Eid or social events like cooking nights, we were not able to gather the congregation together. I do not mean to say that the Muslim students on campus are not interested in Islam. It is simply a fact that when we organized religious circles, halaqas (discussions) or any type of religious event, we lacked an authoritative voice. Given our knowledge, our topics weren’t very thought provoking, nor were we able to answer any real questions about our daily realities as Muslim students on a non-Muslim campus. Whatever the reasons may be, when the people who organized the event are the only ones who show up, it gets discouraging for the organizers. As one of the organizers, it has been personally disappointing for me to be unable to gather the students together to form a congregation.
In Islam, the mandatory congregational prayer is on Friday; a Muslim imam gives a sermon (khutbah) before the prayers. Some of the students in the Muslim Student Union (MSU) have fulfilled this role by reading the khutbahs they find online. For that prayer, they basically serve as the imam of Williamstown and the nearby areas. One Friday night last spring, I met the friend who gave the sermon that day for the jummah prayer. I still remember what he said: “I feel weird. In the morning I [am] the imam … and the same night I am a 20-year-old college student at a party.” His words simply summarize the problem. We are treated like the ambassadors of Islam even though our knowledge is very limited. All of these responsibilities that lie on our shoulders do not seem fair, and the unsatisfactory job we produce for the rest of the Muslim and non-Muslim students on campus is problematic for us personally.
I went through a lot of this hardship with my other friends in the MSU. We had to figure out how to remain practicing Muslims the hard way, and some of us gave up. We grew a lot and learned from the experience, though unfortunately for many of us it was not a pleasant journey. If Williams is to stand behind the promise of catering to students’ needs, including spiritual needs, the College should save us from the heavy burden of being religious authorities and ambassadors. It is important that we make Williams a truly exceptional option for prospective Muslim students – both domestic and international. Additionally, bringing a sincere and knowledgeable Islamic voice to campus would benefit the campus as a whole. A chaplain will not only gather Muslims together and provide spiritual guidance; he will provide opportunities of awareness for the whole campus. Such a role is vital, especially in a world where the media spouts stereotypes left and right. As Williams students, we are going to be the leaders of tomorrow; as such, it is important that we leave this place with a correct idea of what almost a quarter of our world believes. For me as a Williams Muslim student, it is important I leave this place understanding how to remain a part of that 25 percent.
Zeynep Coskun ’12 is an economics and anthropology double major from Istanbul, Turkey. She lives in Brooks House.