As a Hoya that is part of two geographically distinct Georgetown University entities, I have developed a unique perspective on the notion of religious diversity. My dual experience as a student on the Georgetown Qatar campus and now an exchange student on the main campus here in Washington, D.C., has enabled me to reflect on how religious communities manifest themselves in both our campuses. Not only have I built insight into the religious dynamic of a Jesuit academic institution, but I have also had the opportunity to tap into my own understanding of my identity as a Muslim student.
As a Muslim who was born and raised in Muslim countries, I constantly struggled with the idea of religion as being something that I passively adopted just because I was born into a religious Muslim family. Despite the feeling of comfort that comes with belonging to a certain faith, I had always wondered if I, as an individual, would choose to believe and practice Islam if I lived in an environment that was not primarily Muslim. The answer to this question became clear when I was exposed to the religiously diverse community here at Georgetown in D.C.
Practicing my religion in an environment that is not immersed into Islam religiously and culturally has helped me solidify my religious beliefs and build more intentionality towards the practices I perform as a Muslim. For example, I no longer depend on the sound of the call to prayer that echoed into my house and reminded of performing my prayers on time, nor do I depend on my parents to keep me on track with my religious duties. Instead, I became completely responsible for and conscious of my own religious obligations as a Muslim. Despite this responsibility being solely my own, it added a sense of meaningfulness into the practices that I used to do just for the sake of checking them off my to-do list.
In addition to that, I also understood the experience of being a Muslim as part of a minority. Unlike the Muslim commmunity back home — where Muslim individuals make up a majority of the country — being a Muslim as a minority means having a tighter and more closely-knit community that supports and encourages spiritual and religious growth with open mindedness and through communal guidance. I slowly realised that the responsibility of upholding my religious practices and believes are not actually solely my own, but with the help of existing Muslim societies like Muslim Life and the Muslim Student Association, this responsibility became a shared one. One of my favourite experiences I had was going on the fall retreat that was organised by Muslim life and led by the Muslim chaplain. The theme of the retreat was about finding spiritual grounding and implementing it in our daily lives. This experience was very eye-opening as it made me reflect on the importance of spirituality in Islam, a concept that is not very prevalent among traditional Muslim communities.
Moreover, I also had to experience different facets of my religion that I did not discover back home in Saudi or Qatar. On Fridays, Muslims attend a service that involves praying and listening to a preacher as a way to honor the significance of this day in Muslim tradition. Unfortunately, in my home country, this service is most commonly attended by men in society even though, religiously speaking, both men and women are encouraged to attend this service and participate in the prayers. Growing up, I would always watch my dad coming back from the Friday prayers and he would tell us about the speech given by the preacher.
Here on the D.C. campus, however, I get to participate in this tradition, one that I always felt curious about. Going to the Friday prayers at the Mosque in Georgetown has been a very enriching and uplifting experience, one that has helped me become more spiritually connected to my religion and feel a sense of community in the midst of our diverse campus. Additionally, this experience made me reflect on how religious traditions back home can sometimes be culturally more accessible to men than to women. Thus, when I return back home, I will aspire to encourage women in my community to become more involved so that they can get an equivalent spiritual and religious experience.
One interesting and perplexing aspect of religious diversity I was able to witness in Georgetown was how different religious institutions function differently. For example, I recently attended a Taylor Swift musical concert inside a church in downtown D.C., which was very surprising to me since I could never imagine having a concert inside a mosque. However, despite the institutional differences between the various religions I encountered, their essential values are in many ways similar due to the element of faith that is shared among all people who believe in a divine power. I realised this from the numerous late-night conversations I had with my Christian and Hindu roommates, during which we exchanged thoughts and ideas about our own religions.
In my opinion, religious diversity helps us regain our humanness by helping us recognize other people’s beliefs and faith with a deeper understanding and open mindedness. These insightful interactions I have had in the past few months between people who do not share my religion made me feel more comfortable with the idea of cherishing my own religious identity while appreciating and acknowledging the existence of other faiths within Georgetown. Finally, this experience reminds me of a verse from the Quran that beautifully highlights this notion, “To you your religion, and to me my religion” (Qur’an 109: 1-6).
Noha Alhamid is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.