BYU Muslim students keep faith

By on May 1, 2012.

On the second floor of the Wilkinson Center, there is a room unique to all of campus. On Fridays it serves as a gathering place for Muslim students who come every week to worship. The Imam, or Islamic ecclesiastical leader, shares insights from the Quran and the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as charity and faithfulness, that are surprisingly reminiscent of LDS talks. After his remarks, the Imam and congregation stand up.

“Straighten the line and close the gaps, please,” the Imam says and the deep tones of the Arabic prayer begin.

This year, the BYU campus has reached out to Islamic culture even more. Several guest speakers from Islamic countries visited the school, the Museum of Art is holding its largest ever Islamic art exhibit and its restaurant currently serves Middle Eastern dishes. There are about 50 students who practice the Islamic faith at BYU and the number is gradually rising. Interest and curiosity in Islam have also increased among the student body and in the community, prompting the university’s educational outreach.

The majority of Muslim students come to BYU for the business program because of its reputation and the low tuition. Talha Siddiqui is from Pakistan and studying information systems at BYU. He said when he thought about coming to BYU, his family was initially concerned. However once he got in touch with Muslim students at BYU who gave him insights into life at BYU, he felt better prepared and his parents supported his decision. He has liked the decision so far.

“I got the chance to make really good friends and memories along the way,” Siddiqui said. “Of course my likeness would be a little different from the typical BYU student’s, simply because I didn’t come here for all the same reasons: strengthen a testimony of the gospel, finding the ideal spouse and so on. [But] I think these four years will certainly be a unique experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life.”

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People gather together to pray according to their Islamic faith in the Wilkinson Center on Friday.

As one of the few Muslim students at BYU, Siddiqui said Islam is not only a set of guidelines to live by, but also an identity — a sense of who he is, what he is and why.

“Just the other day I was studying in the Book of Mormon’s Moroni chapters where he mentions his father, Mormon, talk about faith, hope and charity,” he said. “I think my experience in Islam has been like that. Religion provides that backbone to my actions, and I’m really grateful for it. The Friday prayer is a chance to remember God, get together with the little Muslim community at BYU and reinvigorate my religious devotion.”

Omer Malik, a senior studying finance at BYU, is also from Pakistan. He said his first impression of the LDS Church was that it was a very strict religion, but as he spent a few years at BYU he has come to see it differently.

“I like the teachings of the Church and the honorary values it instills in its members,” Malik said. “They are very similar to my beliefs and the culture is conservative, very similar to the manners I was raised with.”

Malik said the western media portrayal of Islam as a very strict cult does not represent the majority of practicing Muslims.

“My religion helps me be a better person and seek guidance from the Quran regarding day to day problems,” Malik said. “It also helps me obtain inner peace and the Quran is a great form of guidance. In accordance in practicing Islam for my 21 years of life, I found it to be one of the most peaceful religions.”

Idrissa N’Diaye, a student from Mali studying economics at BYU, said he was very impressed with the missionary service many members of the church perform. When his American friend talked about serving a mission for two years, he thought it was almost shocking that he would voluntarily give up time that he could have spent in school or making money. N’Diaye said the example has increased his desire to serve God and know Him better.

Islam is a religion that is probably as misunderstood as the LDS faith, said Scott Gemmell, research assistant at the national Middle East Language Resource Center. Gemmell works with Muslim professors throughout the world on a daily basis. He is currently studying Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at BYU.

“There are many similarities between the two religions — namely between the two founders Joseph Smith and Muhammad,” Gemmell said. “Muslims believe in the concept of apostasies, a prophet was called by a heavenly visit, that the prophet brought a book of scripture, lead a group of people that were being persecuted and taught similar values that the LDS church teaches.”

Gemmell said he recognizes the clear distinctions between the Islamic and the LDS faiths as well.

“Yes, there are some major doctrinal differences such as the role of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Islam views Jesus as a prophet, not the Son of God. They also ignore the authority of priesthood power. Both of these concepts are distinct to the LDS religion when compared to Islam. I think when it comes down to [the difference], we will find that God has a much bigger chess board than we think there is; God is moving pieces that we don’t even see being moved and Islam is one of those pieces.”

Gemmell said Muslim students who come to BYU are highly respectable people, simply by the way they treat others. He said he personally encourages BYU students to make friends with a Muslim if they haven’t already, because they will soon find he or she is a lot like them.

“Some people say regarding other things different than themselves they need to gain tolerance, but I say we need to gain appreciation,” he said. “My Muslim friends at BYU and outside of BYU are people I appreciate and respect. It’s the least I’d expect out of them for me and my faith.”