Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

Religion and Spirituality at NYU Abu Dhabi

Delving into my peers’ religious and spiritual journeys, I was hoping to reach some sort of conclusion, but as cliché as this sounds, I left with more questions than answers.

Nov 27, 2022

I have heard everything from “religion moves by the sword” in my January term course to “religion is all about love” from my church to “I am NOT religious, I am more… spiritual” sprinkled throughout campus. I do not think my religious and spiritual journey would be complete without my experiences at NYU Abu Dhabi — whether it was through discussing religious theories with my peers, participating in Sustained Dialogue, or just taking in my environment. I felt it was necessary to document my peers’ journeys to further understand our community values, and to get a better sense of the beliefs behind the faces that I surround myself with on our small and intimate campus.
In this piece, I delve into my peers’ religious and spiritual journeys. My conversations with them were very insightful and full of wisdom and empathy. Towards the end of the interviews, they also provided thoughts on practical ways that the campus could develop these religious and spiritual spaces. I also try to break down some of the resources our campus offers for those who are navigating these parts of their identities.
Soja’s Journey
Soja Rajakaruna, Class of 2023, took me through her upbringing with the Buddhist faith. She identifies as a Sri Lankan Buddhist who is constantly trying to have a better understanding of her faith.
Her definition of religion revolved around routine and being mechanical. Throughout the interview she would often use phrases like “resort to” when describing her relationship with religion. She did not think she could rely on religion when she was going through a tough time, although that sentiment changed over time. Her view of religion was that it was something that pushed you to perform rituals when in crisis — perhaps an upcoming test or a familial issue. On the other hand, spirituality was correlated with growth and awareness — which she felt very comfortable with.
During her first year in university, she felt disconnected from Buddhism and going into the multifaith room confirmed that. Rajakarunadid not feel the spark that she once had to the critical elements of her faith, such as the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha. By researching further and having open conversations with her peers and family members, she gradually felt more and more connected to Buddhism and her college experience began to slowly evolve.
Rajakaruna touched on the benefits and challenges of belonging to a faith that she felt was more of a lifestyle than a religion. She never felt as though she was being told what to do and Buddhsim allowed her more space to be present as a soul, rather than just a body. In the majority of situations that felt heavy and difficult, she could distill these situations with steadiness and detachment, core values within the Buddhist faith. The Middle Path was a topic she brought up, a Buddhist notion of not getting attached to extremes and truth being unwavering. However, despite the benefits of her faith, she had always yearned for a tight knit community and often associated that sentiment with Christianity because of her experience in a Christian private school. Students would go to Mass and sing their hearts out together every Sunday. Soja did not feel as though Buddhists had that sense of camaraderie that other faiths had, and that realization felt sobering, almost lonely.
When asked how she would help cultivate the spiritual and religious spaces on campus, she discussed how the development of the multifaith room could be a potential way to support that endeavor. She also felt touched by Sustained Dialogue, during her time as a Sustained Dialogue Ambassador and member, where she could express her feelings in a space that accepted the churning and turmoil that came with important questions. She believes that through these spaces, incoming students could truly be supported on their path with reconciling religion and spirituality.
Rajakaruna’s mother and grandmother were a great source of strength to her and helped her come to terms with her faith through providing wisdom and resources. Her eyes lit up when talking about how her grandma had so much peace about her mundane life. “I want to have an anchor and I want the anchor to be universally applicable,” reflected Rajakaruna at the end of her interview.
Vaso’s Journey
Vaso Borovic, Class of 2023, defined religion as a concept being tied to Abrahamic beliefs, specifically Islam — a relationship with God. He grew up agnostic in a Christian dominated Montenegro and converted to Islam during his time as an NYUAD student. Much like many people on a religious journey, he found a calling in God. Furthermore, he emphasized the warmth of the Muslim community on campus, which had welcomed him with open arms.
Having taken Islamic Finance courses coupled with the Quran and other supplemental readings, Borovic talked about his deep respect for the Islamic way of life, which he felt differed greatly from the capitalist Western models of life that essentially exploit monetary and materialistic greed. Furthermore, the Muslim lifestyle, in Borovic’s eyes, was also tied to the closeness of the community. He felt as though relationships between Muslims were more enduring due to the commitment to the communal spaces. He observed that many of his Muslim peers would gather in prayer rooms and spend a lot of time in religious spaces. Hence, their bonds would be strengthened through breaking bread and discussions on their faith within these spaces.
His conversion journey happened in New York, during his junior year study away, and he glowed when he referred to Ramadan as one of the best months in his life. He felt compelled by a spiritual aspect, and the existence of Allah, and wanted to further his belief during his time in New York. He was able to join the Islamic Center and join his newfound community in prayer and harmony. Borovic particularly enjoyed the solidarity that came with the many initiatives that provided care to Muslims who were having a difficult time in their respective regions of the world.
Borovic feels as though the campus would greatly benefit from having an Adhan — the Muslim call to prayer — audible during prayer times. He mentioned how many tourists enjoyed hearing the Adhan in the malls, regardless of their own faiths, because it was a unique way to embrace the culture of the country in a passive manner. Furthermore, the Adhan would also help the Muslim community maintain their connection to the faith. Even as he was pitching this idea, he felt grateful for what campus already provided. He emphasized that there must be an independence that comes from catalyzing a religious journey, and how asking critical questions are also deeply important. “Do not be ashamed to ask questions,” Borovic said, and I couldn’t agree more.
Mohammed Waseem Chaudry, Program Specialist at the Office of Spiritual Life, Intercultural Education and Conflict Transformation (SLICECT), explained how their initiatives help students with their religious and spiritual journey. Chaudry mentioned the annual desert retreat that offers students an opportunity to explore their spirituality and reflect on their growth processes in a natural setting that is conducive for openness as a community. The purpose is to create a non denominational space for the exploration of spirituality — meaning, value, connecting, transcendence and becoming. SLICECT organized a trip to Jebel Ali Worship Village on November 26th to the first Hindu Temple in the UAE, the Sikh Gurdwara and an Orthodox Church. The visit involved informational tours and moments of contemplation, and provided a great opportunity for interfaith connection and exploration of the religious diversity of the UAE.
The office is hoping to hire an Assistant Director for Spiritual Life in the near future, who will be assisting Saman Hussain, the Director of SLICECT, in creating more innovative ways to touch the campus on the spiritual front. A somewhat unknown perk of having Hussain, a licensed professional, on our campus is that there is an open door policy in which spiritual coaching is provided.
The Sustained Dialogue program has been a staple of SLICECT and engages with students to create brave spaces within small groups, where students can connect, practice empathy and resilience, and explore a range of sensitive topics. I have been a Dialogue Ambassador for over two years; the program will at the very least challenge your biases and at the most help you create significant relationships and change your framework on how to actually engage with taboo topics. Contrary to popular belief, the program is not group therapy, but people do tend to feel more equipped to reconcile with their complicated emotions and beliefs in the duration and aftermath of Sustained Dialogue.
The SLICECT Program is determined to make their services more accessible and inclusive for everyone, and they welcome feedback on their initiatives. Their department deals with the matters of the heart and Chaudry left me with a beautiful quote from Buddha, “We will develop love, we will practice it, we will make it both a way and a basis.”
Exploring this topic, I was hoping to reach some sort of conclusion, but as cliché as this sounds, I left with more questions than answers. I was deeply grateful for each of the conversations I had and I feel as though there was a lingering connection I gained after hearing each of their stories. Religion and spirituality has a way of opening people up to their family background, their preconceived notions, and their transformations throughout their lives. It’s powerful to have these conversations and display these journeys, because I left every interview feeling more convinced that there must be humility that comes with religious and spiritual attainment. As Borovic said, “We shouldn’t feel arrogant about our beliefs.”
Ribka Tewelde is a contributing writer. Email her at
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