First Muslim Prayer Service

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on November 22, 2010

On Friday, November 19, 2010, Fairfield University held its first Muslim prayer service in the new Interfaith Prayer space at 42 Bellarmine. Hosted by the University’s new Muslim Chaplain, Heba Youssef, and the Muslim Students Association, the Jumu’ah (Friday) prayer was led by Hartford Seminary student and aspiring chaplain, Amjad Tarsin, who delivered a khutbah (sermon) on compassion, mercy, and service in the Islamic tradition. The service was open to everyone in the University community; we contacted Youssef to learn more.

Photos courtesy of Jean Santopatre

1. When did you join the Fairfield community as the new Muslim Chaplain at the University?

I started as the Muslim Chaplain intern at Fairfield this past September. I am nearly done with my Master’s degree in Christian-Muslim Relations and Islamic Chaplaincy at Hartford Seminary, and this position has been a wonderful stepping stone in my ministry.

2. How would you describe the Fairfield community, and its tolerance of religious pluralism?

The Fairfield community has been very welcoming and accepting. Father Gerry Blaszczak has been both a mentor and friend in my time here at Fairfield. He was the one who opened the position for a Muslim Chaplain and also made an interfaith prayer space available to the students. He has this wonderful vision for the University that will allow different faith communities to continue to flourish and work with one another, and I am so deeply honored to be a part of that.

3. Why was this moment in time chosen for Fairfield’s first Muslim prayer service on campus?

This year for the first time, the Muslim students were accommodated with an interfaith prayer space in the 42 Bellarmine Residence Hall. We share that space with other faith groups on campus and it is truly a testament to the University’s effort in moving forward with religious pluralism on campus. With the opening of a prayer space and the hiring of a Muslim chaplain, we felt it was the perfect time to hold a prayer service. It marks history at Fairfield University, and it was a way of inviting the community to be involved in that.

4. What does this event signify to you?

This event for me signifies the beginning of great things to come at Fairfield. I hope our events allow the broader community to understand Islam in a positive light. Our prayer service prompted the Center for Judaic Studies to host their first ever Shabbat service on campus in the same interfaith prayer space (which will take place in February). We are entering a time where interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding is pivotal in our everyday lives — and with events like these we can continue to prepare our students for that type of meaningful dialogue.

5. Please describe the primary differences between Catholic and Muslim prayer.

I think one of the common misconceptions that people have is that Muslims pray to a different God, because you often hear the term “Allah” being used interchangeably with “God.” However the term “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, and because our ritual prayers are recited in Arabic we often use the term “Allah.” Interestingly enough, however, Arab Christians also use the word Allah when referring to God and reading the Arabic Bible. Though ritualistically, prayers obviously differ across faith traditions; the underlying ethic is to establish a relationship with God – seeking His forgiveness, His Mercy, His Guidance, and everything in between. Throughout the week Muslims pray 5 times daily — Friday is considered our holy day or Sabbath if you like — where Muslims gather in a mosque or prayer space, listen to the Friday sermon, and follow that with prayer. This is what we did at Fairfield University this past November.

6. Please describe the rituals and intentions of Muslim prayer.

Before a Muslim prays, they perform a ritual washing that takes only a couple of minutes. Because of the sacredness of prayer, we want to face God in a state of physical and spiritual purity. The washing reminds us that we have an important meeting with God, and those few minutes give us time to mentally prepare for prayer as well. Muslims pray 5 obligatory prayers throughout the day (and there are optional prayers you can add as well); the first prayer at sunrise, the second at noon, the third at midday, the fourth at sunset, and the fifth at night. The Islamic prayer involves recitation from the Qur’an (the Islamic Holy Scripture), and prostrations. With one’s forehead to the ground, Muslims believe this is when God’s Servant is at the peak of humility and the closest to God.

7. Were non-Muslim students, faculty, and staff welcomed to join, and if they did, did you receive any feedback from them?

The title of our event was “Ever Wonder How Muslims Pray? Come Join us and See!” I wanted this prayer service to be as inclusive as possible and I was astounded to see the student and faculty support we received that day. We set up half the room with chairs as a sort of observatory area, and Muslims traditionally sit on the floor and listen to the sermon as a sign of humility. The setup worked great. Afterward we had a very rich Q&A session over food; following the event I was overwhelmed with the positive and reassuring feedback we received.

9. Any other upcoming events you’d like the University community to be aware of?

We definitely hope to have at least two more prayer services before the end of the year. There are a couple events to keep an eye for. On Wednesday February 23rd I will be a part of an interfaith panel on same sex marriage, “Does God Approve of Same Sex Marriage,” to be held in the BCC. One of our larger events will take place April 11th-15th, and that will be Islam Awareness Week. The Muslim students will put on a week of informative and interactive programming about Islam. It will be the first of its kind at Fairfield University, so we’re really excited about that.

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