Illustration by Zelalem Waritu.

Stories of Meaning: The Muslim Students' Association

The MSA provides an intentional space for deeper reflections on being a Muslim on campus and on one’s personal relationship with their faith. What impact has it had on its members and the NYUAD community?

Apr 4, 2021

Whether through the trademark “As-Salaamu Alaykum gLoBaL LeAdErS!” email greeting or the flurry of activity outside the prayer room on a Friday — a sight from the pre pandemic campus — the Muslim Students’ Association has made an impact on the NYU Abu Dhabi community. As a religion based Student Interest Group, the MSA wears numerous hats to serve the community; it facilitates dialogues on themes of exclusion and Islamophobia, offers a sense of home with community iftars and provides prayers of support during stressful circumstances. Functioning in a religiously diverse campus nested in a Muslim majority country, the MSA delivers the NYUAD community a unique space for discovering personal meaning.
The Purpose of the MSA
Rama Alhariri, Class of 2021, spoke to the MSA’s purpose in augmenting efforts for community building and bringing people together. “It’s also a good place to actually learn about other people’s experiences. If you’re someone who’s really interested in learning about people’s different values, you can find that in the MSA … I find that going to the MSA and seeing that there are these people who are really passionate about Islam, but they have very different perspectives to myself, I find that really motivating and inspiring.”
With events such as Journey with the Quran and Contextualizing Islamophobia, the MSA has created a space for deeper reflections on one’s personal relationship to faith and the outward experience of being Muslim in the world today. Farah Sadek, Class of 2021, elaborated on the need for such conversations to extend beyond the Muslim community.
"Some might say that if you go to NYUAD and you don't have a better understanding of the politics of the Middle East before you leave, that's seen as problematic because it's a great opportunity for a student to do so,” Sadek commented. “This is the opportunity where you have the ability to grow not just for yourself, but also to have that sense of awareness and wanting to better understand the people and the religion that is very present in the country."
The Community
Siba Siddique, Class of 2018, reflected on the experience of sharing conversations around Ramadan and the cultural traditions around the month as a way to engage with the NYUAD community at large. The takeaway for Siddique was not simply showing others her faith, but planting seeds of dialogue around it. "We did have people who were curious about Islam who used to attend quite regularly and it's always exciting because you're sharing the beauty of your faith with them," shared Siddique. “More than just showing, it’s including them in the conversation."
While the MSA provides a new understanding to non-Muslims, Sadek shared how the MSA also provides a much needed space for Muslim students, despite residing in the UAE. "It might not seem to make sense. But given that we're on a campus that is very diverse in terms of student population, I feel a disconnect between being on campus and living in the UAE or in a Muslim majority country," Sadek reflected.
In tackling that disconnect, Sadek appreciated the fact that the MSA provides a tailored space to be a Muslim student on the NYUAD campus. Alhariri echoed the sentiment, suggesting that the MSA as a space of belonging is essential: “The MSA for me has largely been a place where I felt that I don't have to necessarily explain myself. It was simply a safe space for me."
Justin Parrott, faculty advisor of the MSA and Research Librarian for acquisitions and Middle East Studies, likened the community of the MSA to that of a "small town mosque where everyone knows each other." He further spoke to the importance of such a space to the NYUAD community: "The city mosques are usually large and are attended by a very diverse population across languages and cultures. The religious programming is mostly in Arabic, while the MSA can provide activities in English that are relevant to student life at NYUAD," Parrott elaborated.
In speaking of his personal journey with the MSA, Parrott returned to the idea of connecting with the community. "As one of the Friday prayer leaders, I [derive] profound meaning [and] purpose from sharing knowledge, wisdom and inspiration not only to our students, but to staff and faculty who also attend the prayers."
When speaking of the need to redress the community perception of the MSA at NYUAD, Sadek acknowledged the view that the MSA is an exclusive group. Sadek wanted to debunk this misconception. "Everyone's welcome. Everyone's on their own journey. There's no right way to journey through your faith. Everyone has their own stories and perspectives and it's all welcome at the MSA. We're all here to learn at the end of the day."
The future of the MSA and its community members
As community members reflected on their takeaways from the MSA, a sense of personal development and growth underlined many responses. "I've learnt the value of communication, commitment and adaptability," said Alhariri. "One of the things that I learnt was the value of my commitment and the value of my contributions... that gave me confidence to believe in my abilities and believe in how my work can impact others."
Speaking of her final semesters at NYUAD, Sadek explained her renewed perspective on her personal journey and growth. “I feel like being engaged in a community and circles of knowledge and learning has grounded me in a better sense of understanding and support to realize that you don't have to know everything."
“You're always going to be learning. Understanding that was really important. Seeing how a lot of different students were on that same journey too was very motivating for me,” Sadek continued. “I think that also speaks volumes about the importance of community in our faith."
As community members find unique meanings and spaces within the MSA, its role as a pillar of NYUAD’s diversity is clear. The MSA does not provide community members with a defined space, rather it equips them with the support and agency to flourish under the umbrella of faith.
Noora Shuaib is a Contributing Writer. Email her at
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