Islam as a way of life

UB Students share what it's like to practice Islam on campus


After his exam, Payraw Salih* took three pieces of paper – one for his head and two for his feet – to the corner of the lecture hall. Only one other student was in the classroom. The student stared as Salih walked to the corner to complete the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily prayers Muslims observe.

For Salih, a senior physics major and a leader of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), Islam is a way of life.

Although Muslim students can face challenges practicing Islam in college, many of them gain a deeper understanding of their faith engaging with the MSA and local community. Buffalo has approximately 30 mosques, and the Masjid An-Noor mosque located on 745 Heim Road is the closest one to UB.

“Without Islam, I would be prone to a deep depression,” Salih said. “It guides my actions through an appropriate outlet.”

Salih described Islam as a religion that emphasizes habitual spirituality. Islam instills an element of worship in every aspect of the day, including everything from interactions between men and women to honesty on exams, he said.

Salat – the duty to pray during certain times of the day based on the position of the sun – is one of the five pillars of Islam. MSA provides its office in 320 Student Union as a prayer room for Muslim students.

Sometimes Salih, external vice president of MSA, has difficulty reaching the office on time but he doesn’t let his distance from 320 Student Union delay his prayers.

“Staircases, classrooms, grass fields – you name it, I’ve [prayed] there,” he said.

Umar Yasin, a sophomore biomedical sciences major and events coordinator of the MSA extended board, does not think praying five times a day is difficult. Although Muslims can make up for missing a prayer by praying at another time, it’s important for Muslims to consistently express faith in Allah and gratitude for their blessings, according to Yasin.

“After you do it, it really becomes a part of you,” he said.

When Salih came to UB, he struggled to understand why different Muslim students had different degrees of religiosity.

Last year, he was responsible for giving the call to prayer at the MSA barbeque. Around 200 people attended the event, and more than 40 people surrounded him. Since then, he has also been giving weekly sermons for MSA on Friday afternoons in 210 Student Union.

Although some students paid attention during the call to prayer, others became distracted and played games on their phones, Salih said. Throughout his time at UB, he learned to accept that not all Muslim students are equally religious.

Mohammed and Jesus had a worse situation compared to himself, he said.

“I got displeased for 30 seconds,” Salih said. “These people spent their whole life trying to call people to prayer.”

Reem Abdellif, a junior business major and internal vice president of MSA, gained a deeper understanding of Islam after her trip to Jerusalem the summer before her senior year in high school. She chose to wear a hijab during her senior year of high school.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “[But] the vibe I got, it was a positive vibe. I always incorporated Islam into life, but I hadn’t put out that image [yet].”

When Abdellatif realized Western business attire did not agree with Islamic tradition, she decided to “Islamify” her business casual attire, she said.

Instead of wearing a pencil skirt and form-fitting cut-sleeve shirt, she chooses to wear a long skirt and full-sleeve blouse or a suit jacket.

Abdellatif said Buffalo is a diverse, open-minded community, and she has not encountered discrimination at UB.

She also said she is respected within her religion. According to Islam, women should have a high place in society because they are the foundation of future generations, she said.

Practicing Islam in the United States is difficult because Muslims are a minority and are often misunderstood, according to Mohammed Shariff, a senior biology major and president of MSA and vice president of the Organization of Arab Students.

“Legally, we can practice more overseas, but in the West it’s culturally more restrictive,” he said.

Some westerners assume terrorist groups embody principles from the Quran, when, in reality, they act in extreme ways because of their personalities, Salih said.

“There’s no such thing as extreme Islam,” Salih said. “It’s only Islam.”

Shariff would like more Muslim students to join MSA and embrace their cultural roots.

MSA currently has a $15,500 budget – the largest budget of all religious clubs and the third largest budget of all special interest clubs. MSA spends its budget on events such as lectures, dinners and celebrations. The club has 500 members and 100-150 active members, according to Shariff.

For Yasin, being involved in MSA and his mosque’s youth group provide opportunities to focus on self-development and form close relationships with the Muslim community. These relationships help him overcome the challenges of practicing Islam in the United States.

“People face different obstacles according to who they are and who their friends are,” he said.

Maintaining friendships with deeply religious people across religions is rewarding, according to Yasin.

“You feel a little normal,” he said. “Our beliefs are most of the time very symmetrical.”

Abdellatif said she valued Islam more after she started participating in MSA events. Being in MSA has given her a lifelong support network, she said.

Salih remembers witnessing a unique brotherhood when he visited his family in Kurdistan, Iraq and observed the calls to prayer. When the Imams made the call to prayer, everybody stopped what they were doing and walked toward a mosque – even the owners of jewelry stores left their doors wide open, he said.

“There’s faith in humanity,” he said. “When the call to prayer comes, nobody thinks of stealing.”

Brotherhood is also a key element of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and pray for one and a half hours every night. Ramadan is a month dedicated to self-evaluation and repentance, according to Yasin.

“It’s kind of like a checkpoint,” he said. “Kind of like your extra credit month.”

Fasting is not only a form of biological purification, but also a form of mental and spiritual purification.

“You’re supposed to be fasting not just from food and drink, but from anything that’s wrong,” Salih said.

Salih said he feels a deep sense of brotherhood during the long nightly prayers. During these prayers, Muslims pray not only for themselves and their family, but also for Muslims across the world.

“You can’t turn a blind eye to anyone,” he said. “A brother in religion is closer than a blood brother.”

Abdellatif hopes students will understand that Islam is a lifestyle.

“The most valuable thing you can do as a Muslim is treat each other well,” she said. “It’s something that gets reciprocated back. If you do good to people, they will do good to you.”

*Payraw Salih is the brother of Aven Salih, a Staff Writer for The Spectrum