Senior Ishak Hossain is used to being the only Muslim in the room.
Not many Muslims live in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., nor study here at Washington University in St. Louis. Hossain knows friends have questions — Why eat halal? What is Ramadan? How do you cope with the attacks on Islam? — and strives to be an approachable, friendly guide.
“It’s not always been easy to be the face of my faith,” said Hossain, a biology major in Arts & Sciences and president of the Muslim Student Association. “There are a lot of hateful notions that I’ve worked to dispel; a lot of misinformation and ignorance. But, at Washington University, I’ve found that many people want to understand, just as I want to understand more about other faith traditions.”
This week, Hossain and the members of Muslim Student Association hope to deepen that understanding with the annual Islam Awareness Week. Highlights include presentations about Islam in Africa, Muslim refugees in St. Louis and a halaqa — a faith-informed discussion — about income inequality.
“There is no one Muslim experience on campus or in the world, so we created a series of programs that explores different struggles, different communities and different cultures,” Hossain said. “Whether you are Muslim or not, there is a lot to learn.”
‘Common threads among us’
Hossain is also a Rodriguez Scholar, a resident advisor and a Gephardt Institute Civic Scholar. After graduation, he will take a gap year to apply to medical school. During that time, Hossain will continue his efforts to establish a drug recycling program with the St. Louis County Health Department. He also hopes to serve the Missouri Chapter Council on American–Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.
The work will be a continuation of his efforts at Washington University, where Hossain has been an effective champion for Muslim students, expanding both the availability of Halal food and places to pray.
As a first-year student, Hossain would have to trek from his room on the South 40 to Lopata House in The Village and the Serenity Room in Olin Library to pray. Since then, the Muslim Student Association successfully lobbied for two new interfaith prayer rooms — one in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in the Danforth University Center, and one in Lee House in the South 40, which also is used by Muslim staff.
Hossain also has worked with the Washington University Interfaith Alliance to support religious life on campus. He has joined Jewish students for Shabbat dinners at the Hillel House and worked with students of other faiths to stage performance gospel choirs and Christian a cappella groups. And he has welcomed students of all faiths to the Muslim Student Association’s Jummah, a weekly service held at 1:15 p.m. each Friday at Lopata House in The Village.
“The first Jummah I attended was delivered by one of my best friends on the concept of love,” Hossain said. “There are have been sermons on everything from global warming to why we bow when we pray to what it means to patient. These are issues that are not only important to Muslims, but also to students in general.”
Hossain values his dual role as teacher of Islam and student of other faiths. “When done correctly, interfaith work allows to see beyond your faith perspective to understand the perspectives of everyone else in the room,” Hossain said. “By learning about each other’s faith traditions, I’ve seen the common threads among us.”