Chicago Tribune: Seeking timeout for prayer

Muslim students weary of huddling under bleachers to pray during sporting events want Northwestern to come up with an alternative

As the Ohio State Buckeyes pummeled the Northwestern Wildcats on Ryan Field last November, senior Amir Siddiqui and his friends slipped below the bleachers, removed their shoes and knelt on pieces of poster board to pray.

As the sea of purple cheered and jeered above, Siddiqui tuned out the world around him to perform salaat, the Islamic ritual prayer that faithful Muslims recite five times daily.

Siddiqui will do the same in Welsh-Ryan Arena next week when the Buckeyes basketball team goes up against the Wildcats. But rather than pray amid raucous crowds, some Muslim students are pressing Northwestern’s athletic department to set aside a secluded space for the ritual, or grant them permission to come and go from the arena before the buzzer.

“If we attend the game in its entirety, we would miss one of our five daily prayers,” said Siddiqui, president of the Muslim cultural Student Association. “I can leave the game early, come later, or pray somewhere in the stadium on dirty floors with lots of noise and lots of people around, which isn’t a huge problem. But we’d love to have a small area.”

In a statement, associate athletic director John Mack said the athletic department was not yet ready to make such an exception for Muslim fans. He has agreed to meet with Muslim student leaders next week.

“There were some logistical issues involved, particularly in regards to people leaving the arena or Ryan Field while a game is in progress and then seeking re-entry, which is normally not allowed,” Mack wrote. “But we understand that Northwestern is an institution that values diversity, so we’re continuing to take a look at it to see if there is a way we can accommodate the needs of our Muslim students.”

Space is set aside

Northwestern has set aside two sacred spaces within secular buildings where Muslims can pray. The multicultural center on campus includes a prayer space for students of all faiths. And classrooms are reserved weekly at the Technical Institute, which houses the school of engineering, a popular major among Northwestern’s approximately 200 Muslim students.

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, said the beauty of salaat is that it can be performed just about anywhere. Prayer space is often set aside in airports and hospitals, he said.

“If you don’t have that option, you just close your eyes and concentrate,” he said.

Rehab understands the discomfort about praying among crowds, however. He recalled that a group of Muslim fans were detained at a New York Giants game in September 2005 after they left the stands to pray. Space was set aside at the stadium after the incident.

Rehab said the quest for prayer space could be an opportunity to close the knowledge gap about Islam and teach more Americans about the central role of prayer in the Muslim faith.

Some students oppose request

The campus newspaper has published at least one letter to the editor in opposition to the Muslim students’ endeavor to set aside space.

“Any spectator attending a sporting event recognizes that certain sacrifices must be made to attend a live event,” wrote 2005 graduate Scott Barnett. “If attending a game interferes with one’s religious rituals, I suggest they watch it at home or simply postpone the rituals until after the game.”

But Ruediger Seesemann, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Northwestern, said academic institutions have a responsibility to encourage spiritual formation.

“These Muslim students want to integrate their Muslim identity with their identity as college students,” he said. “Why not let them bring their prayer rugs, let them pray and let them enjoy the basketball game?”

“I personally think it can be settled in a very easy and uncomplicated way,” Seesemann added. “The fact that it becomes a matter of debate is significant and points to the sensitivity of the issue.”

That sensitivity, he said, stems from fear and a lack of knowledge about the Islamic faith–nothing a dialogue can’t fix. A student senator representing the Muslim constituency on campus, sophomore Hibah Yousuf, hopes to launch that dialogue with administrators next week.

While she often prayed either before or after the fall football games, the matter took on greater significance after she performed hajj during the winter break. The pilgrimage to Mecca is required of all Muslims at least once in their lifetime. For Yousuf, the spiritual sojourn reinforced the importance of a sacred place to pray.

“Before I was going through the motions,” Yousuf said.

Now she reads translated verses of the Koran beforehand and seeks a clean, quiet space for her communion with Allah.


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