The Pew Center reports that Islam is growing more rapidly than any other religion in the world. If current trends continue, the tradition will nearly equal Christianity by 2050, and outpace it altogether by 2070. Last fall, the University welcomed a new Muslim Life program coordinator in the Office of the Chaplaincy. As Rizwan Mujeebuddin, L’12, ends his first school year on staff, he reflects on his role guiding the Muslim faithful on campus, what’s next for the program, and how he finds meaning in the everyday moments — from Friday prayer to programs aimed at demystifying Islam.
What’s the Muslim community like here at Richmond?
The Muslim population on campus is small—I estimate less than 50 students, staff and faculty—but still a significant part of the overall campus community.
The student group, with whom I interact with the most, is diverse with varied backgrounds, interests and experiences, and come from all over the world including different parts of the U.S., the Middle East, and South Asia. They are well-integrated and serve the campus in many different capacities, including as student leaders, RAs, teaching assistants, and more.
I find in many ways, having a smaller Muslim population is beneficial because we don’t have the opportunity to become insular like you sometimes see at larger universities. Whenever I see Muslim students, they’re usually with a wide-ranging group friends.
What’s your sense of the campus climate towards Islam and other traditions outside of Christianity?
I've personally found the campus to be inclusive of all faith traditions. As a student, I received strong support from faculty and administration, both in the law school and the from broader campus community, including my now colleagues in the Chaplaincy's office. We have many non-Muslims who frequent our Muslim Student Association (MSA) events and their presence and continued participation reinforces this climate of inclusiveness.
Karen Armstrong, the religious historian, wrote recently she believes the world is experiencing dangerous levels of Islamophobia right now. How does her caution effect your work with both students of faith and community members outside of the tradition?
One of my objectives, both previously as a student and in my current role, has always been to get both Muslims and non-Muslims to think critically about Islam. For example, while a member of the Muslim Law Students Association at UR, we had a series of events that used the word sharia in various contexts — such as Islamic finance, family law and womens’ rights — in order to change its perception in people’s minds to reflect a more practical and truer understanding of the term. This year we hosted a lecture on the challenges and choices of interpreting the Prophet Muhammad's legacy, an event aimed at gaining a more critical understanding of this fundamental part of Islam that is usually taken for granted. Through this type of programing, my hope is that we will be equipped to challenge common assumptions about Islam, if with nothing else, then an appreciation of the nuance and complexity of the issues that often fuel Islamophobia.
What drew you to the job?
Having an established Muslim student organization was important me in college and helped me grow spiritually. College is usually one’s first experience of independence from factors that would otherwise maintain one’s spirituality, such as family and community. When I first came to UR, I found only a small, unaffiliated group of Muslims — almost none of whom were local to Richmond. Since then we’ve grown to one of the more active student groups on campus. To the extent that I felt I was in a position, based on my familiarity with the students and the University, to help keep the momentum going, I decided to take on this more formal role.
What have you found most challenging about your role?
The most challenging part of the job is keeping to realistic expectations, given the part-time role I have with the students, and additionally balancing those responsibilities with my full-time job off campus and other personal obligations. That being said, I’ve received tremendous support from the Chaplaincy and have benefitted from great student leadership, without which this year would not have been a success.
What’s most rewarding?
It’s the interaction and appreciation from the students that I find most rewarding. I’ve always enjoyed being among the unique blend of students the University attracts and learning from their perspectives.
Many students are away not just from home but are also living outside of their birth culture, language, and traditions. Students also come from all levels of religious knowledge and practice. To the extent they can find some comfort in how the organization is established here, I find that to make the role worthwhile.
What’s your vision for the program?
I’d like to see the Muslim community at Richmond become an extension of the larger Richmond area Muslim community, in the spirit of the mantra of one Ummah — or a single unified Muslim community. For various reasons, the Muslim community at UR has remained distant from local mosques and Muslim organizations. I hope to bridge that gap by continuing to leverage resources from this wider group and by inviting its members to attend events hosted by the UR MSA.
What are you most excited about for next year?
I'm most excited to meet the incoming Muslim students and to learn and build on this past year. From what I’m hearing, the Muslim population will continue to grow, including several more international students.
Looking over photos from past events, it’s easy to see the growth we’ve had over the last few years. In addition to increased membership, it’s also more exposure to the work we do. I’m also excited to see that continue to next year.
What are your goals and hopes for community relations?
It's no secret that favorable opinions of Islam have declined in recent years. The most important driver of change will be for Muslims to be a normal function of society. Therefore, in addition to organizing educational and social events, my hope is that Muslim students continue to be active members of the broader UR community, in whatever respect they feel inclined. It's those interactions that will drive change and understanding.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I encourage people to check out the Muslim Student Association Facebook page as the best way to keep in touch with Muslim life on campus. We also have a mailing list that people can join to receive updates about events and programs.