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Muslim Students Increasingly Find Contentment at a Catholic University

When Zeina Abusoud began as director of residence life at Benedictine University a decade ago, the number of Muslim students attending the Catholic institution in Illinois was scant.

But accommodations in academic policy and an inclusive religious environment have helped transform the university into a popular hub for Muslim college students.

“Benedictine is guided by the Roman Catholic tradition and also Benedictine values,” says Abusoud. “St. Benedict’s rules emphasize the tradition of respect and hospitality and appreciation for living and working together in a community. These values are universal and make it very comfortable for the Muslim students to be part of the Benedictine community.”

Since providing information on religious affiliation is optional for students, there are no official statistics on the exact number of Muslim students attending the university. But based on the number of students who responded to a survey conducted by the university last year, an estimated 13 percent of Benedictine’s 3,200 undergraduate students are Muslim.

There are schools in states like Michigan – which has one of the largest Arab populations in the country that have larger Muslim student populations. But Benedictine is a Catholic University that is attracting more and more Muslim students, school officials say.

Nabiha Siddiqui, a junior political science major, was drawn to Benedictine because of the university’s ethnic diversity and small classroom size. The large population of Muslim students was a bonus.

“The university makes it very convenient for Muslim students to practice their faith,” Siddiqui tells Diverse.” This week is Islam Awareness week. We have lectures and events planned to inform people about various topics within the religion of Islam.”

During Islam Awareness week, Muslim students address common fallacies held by non-Muslim students concerning Islam and Muslims.

Misconceptions about Jihad being a holy war or that head scarves worn by some Muslim women are signs of oppression are debunked, Siddiqui says. �Whatever they see [about Muslims] displayed incorrectly in the media, we try to clear that up.� 

This year there are more Muslim women living on campus than in any other year, says Abusoud, who hired a female, Muslim residence hall assistant.

Abusoud attributes the increase in the number of Muslim women enrolling at Benedictine to the level of trust the institution has built with the Muslim community and specific accommodations the university provides for all Muslim students.

At Benedictine Muslim students have a permanent prayer room and the school’s cafeteria offers Halal meat, which is similar to Kosher in that the meat is prepared in the manner prescribed by Islamic law.

“The majority of Muslim students on campus are science majors. Sometimes they have late labs. During the month of Ramadan, [a fast, held from sunrise to sunset], we ask the teachers to give students a five minute break to end their fast,ï” says Abusoud. “The majority of professors are understanding.”

Fadi Shihadeh, editor-in-chief of Benedictine’s student newspaper, The Candor, says Muslim students flock to the university because of its strong medical and science programs.

Science courses, compounded with the fact that a lot of their contemporaries are already here, are what makes Benedictine a destination university for Muslim students, Shihadeh says.

“In Arab culture and Muslim culture, there is pressure to become a doctor or dentist, some sort of medical professional,” says Shihadeh, who is Arab American but not Muslim. “Since Benedictine is known for having a good pre-med, pre-dental and pre-optometry program, a lot of Muslim students are attracted to the university.”

The university’s leadership also plays an important role, says Shihadeh. “In a time where being Muslim is in some ways discriminated against because of the [issue of] terrorism,” he adds, “the president of the university is proud of our large Muslim population.”

In 2008, U.S. News & World Reports ranked Benedictine 13th in the Midwest and sixth in Illinois for ethnic diversity.

“We welcome and value every student  Muslim, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian because each is a gift, says Dr. William Carroll, president of Benedictine University. “Our diversity, which includes a large Muslim population, reflects what is happening in American society and in the world community. Preparing students who know how to interact with individuals without regard to their ethnic, religious or racial background is critical in the 21st century.”

But with such a diverse student body, misunderstanding is inevitable, Abusoud says.  

For instance, between Muslim and non-Muslim roommates there is sometimes a conflict with the morning prayer, says Abusoud. The Morning Prayer is at dawn time. The other roommate may be disturbed by the noise. Visitation by the opposite sex is also a challenge in that interaction between Muslim males and females is regulated.

“We were able to work through and deal with it as any other roommate conflict with students with two different lifestyles,” Abusoud says.

Says Siddiqui: “Dealing with non-Muslims is not much of a challenge, I have friends who are African-American, Latino and White. As far as the opposite gender is concerned, we keep our limitations in mind.”

The Muslim Students’ Association spends the bulk of its time educating and building bridges with other groups.

“We promote understanding of Islamic principles and their ideals. During Islamic Awareness week, there are tables with free literature about Islam, games, movies and workshops to promote positive understanding of Islam,” says Abusoud. “I believe that education, awareness and programming are the only ways to educate the communities about Islam and Muslim.”

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