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Among friends, Muslims explore their beliefs

It was the cookies that first caught the attention of Aliya Shariff '01.

But it was the people who were delivering the cookies — members of the Muslim Student Association going door-to-door to welcome Muslim freshmen to Princeton — that convinced Shariff to give the University's Islamic community a try.


"I figured I would just go to the first meeting because the people were very nice, accepting of differences and welcoming," said Shariff, who is, two years later, president of the group. "I just kept coming back."

The group's room in Murray-Dodge Hall serves as a meeting place for MSA's 50 members. The office walls are bare with the exception of several plaques quoting the Koran and listing the 99 names of God. A bookcase lined with English and Arabic books occupies one corner of the room.

MSA hosts biweekly study breaks, daily and weekly prayers, womens' circle discussion groups and nightly gatherings to break fast during Ramadan, a period during which Muslims cannot eat or drink during daylight.

"I think the MSA has been more liberal and geared to creating a community and not just educating a group," MSA treasurer Aleem Remtula '01 said. "And it's better that way because we are more open . . . and we can question faith and look for answers together."

Islam encompasses more than 70 sects split between two distinct branches — Sunni and Shi'ite — and, as with many religions, maintaining a community in the face of theological differences is no easy task.

Shariff said at other universities, conservatives tend to dominate campus Muslim religious groups, whereas Princeton's MSA embraces both sects by not enforcing a certain type of practice.


"We usually never talk about it, and we have both [sects] and variations of each of them," Shariff said. "We are too small for it to be difficult. On a whole it is all Islam. The basics are the same."

Still, the strains and limitations of maintaining such an open group are sometimes apparent, Shariff noted. The two sects use different prayers and place importance on different holidays, making for "inconsistencies" which prevent religious ceremonies, she said.

In addition, the womens' circles — whose purpose is to discuss issues of Islam and women — can pose difficulties for some students. The topics would be easier to address in single sect groups, according to Shariff.

Alia Poonawala '02, a Shi'ite from France, said that while she likes MSA's setup, she also believes it hampers the group's observation of those holidays that the two sects celebrate differently.

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The group's inclusiveness also makes some topics taboo. When Poonawala first joined the MSA, she said she shied away from larger discussions about different practices because she was too unfamiliar with her faith to answer others' questions.

For members, however, the organization's broad support network transcends its specific religious practices. On a campus where the social scene often revolves around drinking, members said they found relief in having a group of friends that abstains from alcohol for religious reasons.

Another obstacle for Princeton's Muslims is the relative distance of mosques in the surrounding area.

While Sunni students can travel 15 minutes to a mosque down Route 1, driving to a Shi'ite mosque in Edison takes considerably longer, meaning that some MSA members can only attend services one time per week.

"I wish it was more accessible and that I could go on my own," said Poonawala, who does not drive and depends on others to get to Edison. "But it has made us that much closer — Friday nights is our time to be off campus in our own world," she added.

Far from parents and home, where some students may feel pressure to attend mosque, being at college tests students' faith on an individual level, Remtula said.

"Forgetting your religion here is easy," he said. "[It] really forces you to find where you are in the religious spectrum."

Traveling 45 minutes each Friday to attend mosque, instead of going every morning like he does at home, was "a decision I had to make myself," Remtula said.

"It is really my religion and no one is forcing it on me," he said.