Muslim on a Catholic campus

Author: Carol C. Bradley

Mahan Mirza Mahan Mirza

After two years at Notre Dame, Mahan Mirza knows the rules of football—although he’s more familiar with terms such as “batsman” and “bowler” than “linebacker.”

As a high-school student-athlete in his native Pakistan, his sport was cricket—a game unlikely to win over American television audiences since matches typically extend for five days and end in a draw.

Mirza, who joined the faculty in 2009, grew up in Pakistan, the child of émigré parents who had been born in India. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, later returning to the U.S. to study at the oldest Christian/Muslim studies program in America, Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

An assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic studies in the Department of Classics, Mirza was drawn to Notre Dame because of the University’s Catholic faith tradition.

“I like the tensions between faith and reason in search of a meaningful life in the modern world,” he says. “This is a place where you can engage intellectually while simultaneously bringing your faith into the conversation.”

The University does not offer a program in Islamic studies per se, but does offer a major in Arabic and a minor in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Studies. Other related courses on Islam are taught in political science, anthropology and history.

There is a campus community of Muslims, Mirza adds, although not a large one—a few dozen students and four or five faculty members that he’s aware of. Opportunities for Muslim students and those interested in Islam include the Muslim Student Association and the Arabic Club.

The goal of the Muslim Student Association or MSA (ndmsa@nd.edu) is both to provide resources for Muslim students and to cultivate understanding and respect with other faiths. Outreach activities have included dinners, lectures and casual get-togethers.

The Arabic Club (Arabic@nd.edu), one of a number of cultural clubs on campus, cultivates interest in Arabic language and culture and offers opportunities for engagement outside the classroom. Not all Arabs are Muslim and most Muslims are not Arabs, Mirza notes.

The MSA sponsors a number of events annually through the Office of Campus Ministry, which seeks to provide opportunities for those of all faiths. Coleman-Morse houses an interfaith prayer room, with a special area for ritual washing. “Muslims use it regularly,” says Mirza, “and so do others of minority faiths.”

In late fall 2010, Muslim students and friends gathered for a festive meal in the Coleman-Morse lounge to celebrate Eid ad-Adha, a religious festival held at the time of the hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The festival commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God.

The event drew students of other faiths, as well as ND Muslim students from Pakistan, India, Oman and other countries. Many may find the diversity of the Muslim community surprising, Mirza says. The largest Muslim country by population is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Mirza notes that his own name represents a mix of cultures: Mahan is Hindi; his second name, Hussain, is Arabic and Mirza is Persian.

There is considerable interaction between the campus Muslim community and the local mosque, the Islamic Society of Michiana. “We go there for events and Muslim faculty members occasionally give the sermon and lead the congregational prayer on Friday,” Mirza says.

On being Muslim on a Catholic campus, he notes that, “Islam and the West have a shared intellectual history that fuses monotheism, the sacred history of the Israelites and the biblical prophets, and the heritage of Greek philosophy and science. We have a lot in common.”

In the modern, secular age, he adds, “All religions find themselves in one camp. “Islam and Christianity, two of the world’s great religions—and whose populations comprise more than half of humanity—have a lot to contribute, and a lot to talk about with each other. So this is a great place to be.”

Those who are interested in learning more about Islam or in finding out more about Muslims are welcome to attend an event, take a class, or contact a student for coffee and conversation.

Says Mirza, “The best way to break down barriers is to get to know one another.”