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Munshi ’23: In pursuit of knowledge and God at Brown

In the Islamic tradition, we have a famous saying from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: “Islam began as something strange, and it will return to being something strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers.”

Many Muslims, even if we are hesitant to say so, feel strange at Brown. Our religion is strange to the average person here, which makes us strange to them too. We are the strangers praying in the hallway who everyone stares at as they rush by. We are the strangers completely sober on a Friday night. We are the strangers sitting in the classroom, debating whether we should mention our religious perspective or just remain silent like usual.

Most of the time, a lot of my fellow Muslim students and I don’t mind too much. Why should we? After all, we chose to come to this secular university knowing it wouldn’t be the easiest place to practice our faith. We broadly anticipated that practicing Islam would be difficult. We did not expect, however, that not only would the University ignore the healthy relationship between Islam and academic achievement, but that it would also prioritize a secular worldview when given a choice between a secular and an Islamic worldview. This is unacceptable, especially in a setting that claims to value ideological diversity and freedom — Muslim students should not have to set aside their faith to study at Brown.

Some might point out that people of faith will be limited in their academic pursuits out of fear of compromising their religious values. They often assume that this is the fault of the religious individuals themselves. But everyone has sacred values that they are unwilling to compromise on their journey through their academic careers. The only difference for Muslims and other followers of faith traditions, as opposed to students with non-religious worldviews, is that our values are part of a concrete faith larger than ourselves, and thus are not easily compromised.

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There have been many influential Muslim figures in the history of intellectual pursuit whose ideas are too often taught to be divorced from the faith that inspired them. These thinkers, part of an ongoing and productive scholarly tradition steeped in religious conviction, developed fundamental ideas like the scientific method and algebra while being devout religious adherents.

While the typical student may be able to name a handful of ancient Greek philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers, they will probably never learn of some of the intellectual achievements in between, such as how Cartesian skepticism was earlier articulated by al-Ghazali or how Ibn Khaldun formulated a rigorous method of studying history that anticipated much of Western historiography. We are even robbed of opportunities to see modern Muslim scholars at work: Students at Brown rarely learn from practicing Muslim professors.

It seems that ideas from the Islamic world can only survive in academic environments when cleansed of any relation to their grounding in Muslim thought. This tendency in secular academia serves to appropriate ideas from the Muslim world and further implies that Muslims, along with other people of faith, may only have a place in the academy if they too cleanse themselves of their religion.

However, faith is inextricably linked to the academy for Muslims: Pursuing knowledge holds an esteemed position in Islamic thought. Renowned Muslim theologian and philosopher al-Harith al-Muhasibi wrote that “there is no adornment like the adornment of Reason, nor a dress more beautiful than the dress of Knowledge, because God was known by Reason and worshiped with Knowledge.” This sentiment highlights the common view among Muslims that religion is inseparable from knowledge.

At Brown and many other universities, however, religion is treated as an individual choice in the same way one is able to choose their interests — it does not cross into the classroom. Religion exists merely as an extracurricular activity which the university does not consider core to its mission. And for the activities that Brown does consider core, it makes decisions regarding their time and location that prioritize the University’s needs over the needs of its religious communities. For example, holding a graduation ceremony on the same day as Eid — like Brown did a few years ago — implies that Islam and its practice are only appropriate in the times and places that the University deems so.

This treatment of religion as an extracurricular creates unnecessarily rigid spatial and epistemic separations between the spiritual and educational. These separations present a dilemma for Muslim students: We can either relegate our faith to the non-academic and pretend it's unimportant to our studies, or we can carry our faith into academic pursuits at the risk of being dismissed by our professors and peers.

For us, religion isn’t a choice, but a lived reality and a way of viewing the world. Muslims are proud of their intellectual history, and it’s why many of us refuse to do away with our worldview while pursuing education. Previous Muslims — the great scholars I mentioned earlier on — would not have been able to accomplish what they did if they, too, were forced to divorce their academic pursuits from their understanding of Islam. Indeed, Islam is not only our belief system as we approach education but, for many of us, it is the motivation to pursue scholarship in the first place. The Muslim worldview informs what questions are asked and how findings are interpreted.

This is not to suggest that Brown or other secular schools should become religious universities instead of secular ones. But universities should reconsider their insistence on secular teaching and organization: Not only may it alienate religious students, but in many ways, it disadvantages and strains us academically. Brown’s practice of secularism should not mediate these worldviews, but instead facilitate them.

Any time I express my frustration with a lack of Muslim perspectives in academia, well-meaning professors confusedly refer me to the Department of Religious Studies. It gets old trying to explain to them that I’m not interested in studying religion — I’m interested in studying the world while holding on to my religion. Like all students at Brown, Muslim students want a place in the truth-seeking collective project of the University, not to be shoved in some corner because of our faith. Muslims are prepared to feel strange at Brown, but not prepared to depart from our beautiful religion.

Sameerah Munshi ’23 can be reached at sameerah_munshi@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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