Tampa, Fla – Fridays are holy days in the Islamic religion. On those days, Muslims around the world congregate in the afternoon for a joint prayer, called Jummah. On a college campus, it’s no different.
At the University of South Florida, the Muslim Students Association (MSA), in conjunction with The Muslim Connection (TMC), reserve a room every Friday to hold their weekly prayers in. As two of the biggest Muslim organizations on campus, they have an obligation to their members to provide a place to pray the sacred prayer.
Approximately 200-300 students attend Jummah prayer every Friday. As such, MSA and TMC reserve the biggest room they can find in the Marshall Student Center (MSC), with the exception of the ballroom, which is available to be reserved by student organizations only once a semester. Volunteers lay down rugs to provide a clean surface for people to pray on. At 1:30 p.m., the athan is announced, allowing for the sermon to begin.
Students flood into the room, leaving their shoes at the entrance and sitting next to their friends to listen to the sermon. They cramp and squeeze into small corners until there is absolutely no space left, at which point they overflow into the halls, forced to offer their prayer in an undignified way.
This is what prompted Senate President Amani Taha to fight for an Islamic Center to be built on campus. Taha believes the Islamic Center would not only resolve the issue of having a suitable place for Muslims to pray on campus, but it would also strengthen the Muslim community.
“The Muslim students on campus, in my opinion, need this,” said Taha. “With the climate of the world, (they) need a place where (they) can congregate.”
When Taha was a senator for the 57th term, she came across a list of initiatives compiled by the previous Relations committee chair, Saeed Sinan. Taha chose to tackle the issue of building a mosque on campus. Through her research, the first thing she learned was that they couldn’t call it a ‘mosque’. Citing other religious buildings on campus being labeled as ‘centers,’ she decided to propose an Islamic Center to the Student Body President, Moneer Kheireddine, who allegedly agreed at the time.
At a senate meeting in the early months of the Spring 2018 semester, Kheireddine proposed an interfaith center to be built on campus using Activities & Services (A&S) fees paid for by students. According to Taha, because the proposed interfaith center plans on using money paid by the students, the center would therefore be accessible to all student organizations, essentially making it an extension of the MSC. This leaves MSA and TMC back where they started.
Yusef Affifi, Senate President Pro-Tempore for the upcoming 59th term, says the logistics are well taken care of.
“The space is there, the money will come from the Muslim community, the feasibility is there,” said Affifi. “There is no foreseeable reason that would stop this from happening. The only thing that’s remaining is the execution of it.”
That’s easier said than done, however, because according to Taha, the execution of building an Islamic Center on campus is the main issue. The senators were allegedly told by Kheireddine that the current administration doesn’t want to sell more of their land. Regarding the other religious centers built on campus, those were sold their land before the current administration.
According to Ed Rosenthal, the Hillel Jewish Student Center, where he is the rabbi, was sold the land in the late 1980s. However, the building itself was built in 2001, the same year Judy Genshaft became the president of the university. Hillel uses their center as a gathering place for Shabbat, as well as for other events, including a Monday night ice cream parlor where everyone is welcome. The center has a fully functioning kitchen, a multi-purpose room used for games and relaxing, and an outdoor patio with a garden.
Rosenthal believes this kind of center should be allowed for the Muslim students within a proximity of the university, to not only congregate for prayers, but to serve as a space for them to build their community and educate non-Muslims about their religious to dispel any fear.
“People fear what they don’t know, and what they don’t know is what they don’t see,” said Rosenthal. “If non-Muslims have a space where they could come to the center and talk with Muslims, they could learn.”
Ethan Tassinari, a non-Muslim advocate of Muslims, agrees. The current Ethics Vice Chair says a big reason of why people are scared of Islam is because they don’t know people of the faith – having an Islamic Center on campus could change that.
“Having an Islamic Center gives non-Muslim students a chance to ask questions and see Muslims in action,” said Tassinari.
For Yusef Shafiq, the current Senate President Pro-Tempore, as a Muslim who identifies as gay, he believes an Islamic Center would do more than help non-Muslims – it would help Muslims like him who are ostracized within the global community to find a space that accepts them.
“The university Muslim community reintroduced me to a religion that accepts me, and I would love to have a space where I can celebrate in that,” said Shafiq.
Friday afternoons aren’t the only times Muslims pray; they offer prayer five times a day. The current space available on campus for Muslims to pray is the Serenity room, located on the third floor of the MSC. The room is relatively small, with an adjoining hand-washing station, which Muslims use to perform ablution before offering their prayer. The room isn’t exclusive to Muslims, however. Oftentimes, other students use the space as a study room or as a place to socialize with their friends.
As of late, MSA has worked out an arrangement with the MSC which allows them to book two rooms at the same time, to accommodate the overflow from the Jummah room. According to MSA Community Coordinator, Murzia Siddiqi, the overflow room is just a temporary solution. Ultimately, the lack of an Islamic Center on campus hinders their success as a Muslim organization that looks to welcome anyone into their space.
“MSA can’t do their job being a campus Muslim student organization if we don’t have an Islamic Center,” said Siddiqi.