Muslim students from around the globe form an essential part of the Harvard University community. Since its inception in 1955, the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) has striven to serve the spiritual needs of Muslims at Harvard, while educating the greater college community about the nation’s and the world’s fastest growing, and perhaps least understood, faith. In the 1950s, the Harvard Muslim community consisted of a few foreign graduate students. It was at this time that Syed Hossein Nasr, a doctoral student in Islamic cosmology and science, and Yusuf Ibish, a post-doctoral student working on translating the works of the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, recognized the need for a student organization to serve the Muslim community and to advocate for it to the administration. The Harvard Islamic Society was established in 1955 to fill this role. American-born Muslim students first enrolled in the university in the 1970s, and by the late 1980s, the Islamic Society had grown into a vibrant organization with a substantial enrollment of both Muslim undergraduate and graduate students.
Among the first and most important goals motivating the establishment of HIS was the aspiration for an environment wherein Muslims could worship together and further themselves spiritually and strengthen bonds as a community, and where non-Muslims could learn about Islam. In fact, the first jumu’ah, or Friday congregational prayer, to take place at the university was conducted in the middle of Harvard Yard, visible to all.
Acquiring a musalla, or prayer space, that would always be open to Muslims and would support them in carrying out this integral act of worship has been a constant concern for the organizers of HIS. In the early days, a few students used a closet-sized room in Phillips Brooks House to pray together. By the 1980s, the Islamic Society was housed in a small room in the basement of Memorial Hall. As one Muslim alumna recounted, “Prayer space was such that the women had to fight their way and climb over people to get to the back of the room.” This space was constantly moving in the beginning of the 1990s, and by approximately 1993, the HIS musalla had finally settled into its current location, a room in the basement of the freshman dormitory Canaday. Primarily used for prayer, the musalla also serves as a communal area for the Society and its members. It is the site of weekly HIS open board meetings, annual and special HIS elections, halaqaat, or religious study circles, and other social and educational activities that are integral to the Society’s mission of serving the varied needs of Muslims at Harvard.
Community service has also been a central component of the HIS mission since the early years of its existence. In the 1970s, an Islamic weekend school for children in the Boston community was run out of Phillips Brooks House where attendees learned the basics of the religion, as well as how to read and understand Arabic. A tutoring program in which members of HIS mentored high school students formed a major part of the Society’s activities in the 1990s. This past year, the spirit of service to the community continued as HIS brought together the largest team in Boston for the annual Walk for Hunger.
Throughout the years, the Islamic Society has hosted a number of prominent speakers in its effort to spread knowledge and awareness of Islam. Syed Hossein Nasr, Ingrid Mattson, Cat Stevens, and Hamza Yusuf are only a few of the prominent Muslim leaders that HIS has brought to Harvard to engage with students and faculty.
In a reflective exercise conducted last year, members of the Harvard Islamic Society described it as “a home away from home” and “a community to always trust and confide in.” Offering activities such as weekly dinner tables with hot halal meals, hiking trips and group ice-skating expeditions, the Society fosters an environment where members see themselves not as part of a student organization, but as part of a family. There are nightly iftars during the month of Ramadan where the community comes together to break their fasts, as well as congregational prayers held every Friday in Lowell Lecture Hall. Study circles and other classes on Islamic topics contribute to the spiritual growth of members, while events such as Islam 101 and Islam Awareness Week allow the wider Harvard community to gain a better grasp of what the religion is. One of the earliest Muslim student groups to form in the United States, the Islamic Society today continues in its mission of strengthening bonds between Muslims, and engaging the broader community at Harvard and beyond.