The Brown Muslim Students’ Association was founded in the early 1990s to “provide a warm, welcoming and accessible community open to all who identify as or with Muslims and the Muslim community,” according to the organization’s website.
Over three decades later, BMSA continues to carry out its mission from the Muslim Student Center in the basement of Champlin House. Led by a team of eight students and Imam Amir Toft, associate chaplain of the University for the Muslim community, BMSA hopes to expand its on-campus presence as the University’s Muslim community continues to grow, according to Sameerah Munshi ’23, the most recent president of BMSA.
Munshi said that despite the organization’s 30 years of history, the club receives little support from the University and continues to have a small physical space on campus.
“The Catholic community has their own space now, as does (Brown RISD Hillel) because they (both) have large alumni donations that can afford them individual agency on campus,” Munshi said.
According to BMSA Design Chair Shazain Khan ’24, the difference in the religious centers is “unignorable.”
“It’s really unfortunate because we have no natural lighting and have been flooded on multiple occasions,” he said. This “dramatically disrupts our programming.”
Munshi said she has seen the Muslim community at the University “grow significantly” over the past several years. “We’re now at the point where our Jum’ah prayer services on Fridays are able to fill the Muslim Student Center,” Munshi said. “We’ve started finding other places on campus with the capacity to hold our prayer.”
As the Muslim student population continues to increase on campus, Munshi hopes that BMSA will be able to expand and receive additional support from the University.
Dorra Guermazi ’24, last year’s BMSA service chair, said that the organization would likely be able to garner greater student involvement in a larger, more prominent space.
“At the end of the day, it’s important for everyone to feel like they have a space where they can engage with their religion,” Guermazi said. “Increased funding and resources put into the Muslim Student Center would definitely help with that.”
According to Khan, growing engagement with the center across the University’s Muslim community warrants the establishment of a larger home for the organization and its extensive programming.
Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University and director of the Office of Chaplains and Religious Life, said that both Brown RISD Hillel and Catholic Center are funded independently by the University.
The inner workings of both institutions rely on independent and charitable non-profit organizations, Cooper Nelson said, adding that while there is no separate non-profit entity for the University’s Muslim community, the Office of Chaplains and Religious Life does “dream of one.”
Toft said that the funding put into the BMSA has very little to do with the University’s administration. While Hillel and the Catholic Center are “separate legal entities,” BMSA is recognized by the Student Activities Office and receives funding from the Undergraduate Finance Board, according to Toft.
Cooper Nelson added that while the University doesn’t “have the resources we need yet for the Muslim community,” the institution has made strides elsewhere, citing the arrival of Toft in 2020.
In an effort to increase fundraising that can support the growth of the BMSA, Cooper Nelson said her colleagues plan to centralize alumni tracking through a database so donation opportunities can be sent out to alums easily.
“In the last chunk of my time here, I want to build an endowment … to renovate Manning Chapel” and open up the lower floor of the building for use as a “permanent prayer space” for the Muslim community, Cooper Nelson said.
Cooper Nelson commended the BMSA for its ability to make the best of their space with event programming and developing a campus community. “This community has been remarkable for its ability to include everybody and to make a space for prayer or welcome everybody for iftars (during) Ramadan,” she said.
According to Munshi, the BMSA plans its events around the principal values of the Muslim religion: education, service and community.
“We focus on education through teaching other Muslims things about their religion in workshops and also externally through trying to educate others about the Muslim faith,” she said. “We also have held charity events in alignment with our service priorities and the responsibility that Muslims have, not only to each other but to the environment, community (and) everyone around us.”
In addition to hosting prayers, workshops and service events, the BMSA hosts a variety of social events to strengthen the sense of community among the University’s Muslim students.
“We’ve had impromptu ramen nights and Muslim women socials,” Munshi said. “We’ve also hosted a Ramadan field day event where people could pay admission to come play volleyball or football and things like that to raise money to combat global hunger.”
“What’s really unique about having a religious background in an organization is that we didn’t just have to operate on the values of creating community behind an identity, but we also had religious values to draw from too,” Munshi said. “We’re really focused on building a strong social community and supporting each other.”
For Guermazi, it is this supportive community that breathes life into the BMSA and the Muslim Student Center.
“I love the Muslim Student Center because it feels like a safe space,” Guermazi said. “Even if I don’t know someone in there personally, I’ll already feel like I have a connection with them just in understanding that we’re both Muslim.”
Moving forward, Khan said that he hopes to watch the organization grow and further support the University’s Muslim community.
“I hope (that) for the program’s future, we can get a more accessible space that we can customize more freely to reflect different Muslim practices or Muslim architecture,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story did not refer to Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University and director of the Office of Chaplains and Religious Life, by her full name. A previous version incorrectly referred to Brown RISD Hillel as the Hillel Center. The Herald regrets the errors.
Clarificiation: A previous version of this story referred to Sameerah Munshi as the president of the BMSA, when she is the most recent president.
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a junior from Texas studying history and English nonfiction and enjoys freelancing in her free time.