The University of Iowa is re-configuring two former offices in the Iowa Memorial Union to serve as full-time prayer spaces that primarily will serve the university’s Muslim faculty, staff and students.
The decision, made late last year, comes in response to a long-standing request from the university’s Muslim Student Association to offer a centrally located space in which the growing number of Muslims on campus can complete their daily religious obligations.
“The necessity had been well established for a while,” said Tom Rocklin, UI’s vice president for student life. “It was more a question of when the opportunity to do something came up.”
Motier Haskins, faculty adviser for UI’s Muslim Student Association, described the two new prayer rooms — located in Rooms 206 and 208 of the IMU — as a “step in the right direction.”
“(They are) two small but newly carpeted and painted rooms, one for men and one for women located, centrally in the IMU with 24/7 access,” he said.
Each of the rooms provides space for between 15 and 20 people assembling for joint prayer, said Mohammed Ismail, a biochemistry major and event coordinator for the UI Muslim Student Association.
“We’ve very happy what they gave us,” Ismail said. “It’s a big place for the moment, but we may see a need for a bigger room in the future.”
Haskins, a UI clinical associate professor of social work, has tried to find a more permanent prayer site for UI’s Muslim population since he came to the university in 2007. Around that time, UI administrators made Danforth Chapel available for daily prayers, which Haskins said initially seemed an ideal solution.
But after a handful of gatherings, it became obvious the chapel, with benches, an altar and a cross, was anything but a “neutral” religious space. It simply wasn’t going to work for a group whose members spread out rugs and blankets to sit, kneel and stand on during prayers.
A chapel with crosses and other non-Muslim symbols simply wasn’t sharia compliant.
Many Muslim students, faculty and staff report feeling tension on campus as they seek discrete places in which to offer their five daily prayers, at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and night.
Rocklin said that Danforth Chapel continues to be used by a number of other religiously-focused student organizations, and the new prayer rooms will be available to all students as well.
“These rooms are certainly going to be used primarily by Muslim students, but they’re not limited to be used by Muslim students,” Rocklin said.
Haskins said the next challenge will be to locate a larger space for the weekly congregational prayers on Fridays.
The national Muslim Student Association has been working for years with campus organizations to seek various accommodations at public universities across the country.
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