A look into a Living Learning Community for Muslim-American students
It’s still dark out at 6:40 a.m. when sophomore Muneeb Malik wakes up to pray for the first time each day. In fact, it’s supposed to be dark. Malik is a practicing Muslim, meaning that he prays five times each day, three of which must be in darkness. Malik isn’t the only one up that early, however; though he prays alone in the mornings, he is in sync with many other Muslim students on campus, most notably with three other suites on his floor.
That’s because Malik lives in Sakeenah, a Living Learning Community (LLC) “designed to engage students around the Muslim-American experience, with an emphasis on communal, personal, spiritual and individual growth,” as described on the LLC website. Sakeenah, which means “tranquility,” is located in the Lopata and Village houses, specifically to be near prayer rooms in the basement, said Associate Director for Residential Faculty Engagement Stephanie Weiskopf.
To Malik, the purpose is simple: Sakeenah is a group of people from all sorts of backgrounds that are connected through shared religion and way of life. “Even though we’re all Muslims, [we are] a very diverse group,” he said. “We just have this one thing in common that I think impacts all of our lives in almost an equal way, so given our situation we can live accordingly.”
Sakeenah was started in the fall of 2016 through the efforts of WashU graduates Ali Ilahi and Mohammad Dialo, with Professor Younasse Tarbouni as faculty advisor. At first it was a cultural group, which got together to pray and socialize together. In 2019, the club applied to be an LLC, in order to more easily fulfill cultural and religious needs — such as communal prayer and live-in community.
According to Malik, all members often socialize and pray together, and are friends outside their LLC as well. Sakeenah includes both men and women, each assigned a floor of a dorm in the village. Though there is almost an entire floor of men — three suites and 12 members — there is so far only one women’s suite, with three members. The three women are the first to apply to Sakeenah, three years after it was initialized.
For junior Sufyaan Ali, Sakeenah is a place where he feels comfortable practicing his religion, since everyone understands and accepts his beliefs. Living in Sakeenah also has practical benefits, especially on holidays.
“Ramadan has fallen into the school year now, so I find it to be really helpful to have other Muslims to be around when I’m fasting, just to wake up to pray and eat our breakfast together,” Ali said.
Sophomore Haziq Latif-Jangda emphasized that the friendships he has formed through Sakeenah are more than just casual social connections.
“Sakeenah helps provide a certain line of stability, both spiritually and religiously, especially with so much going on and being a minority on campus,” he said.
Sophomore Zanib Mairaj is an agent for the women’s branch of Sakeenah, meaning she is in contact with Residential Life and is a representative for the community. Coming from the suburbs of Chicago, Mairaj didn’t have a robust community of other Muslims until coming to WashU. She roomed with two other Muslim girls freshman year, and this year the three were the first women who applied to be in Sakeenah.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here,” Mairaj said. She has appreciated the constant discourse and support that comes from being around more Muslim students.
“Being a Muslim in America… it can be hard to navigate at times. Those conversations have allowed me to be more confident in my identity.”
Sophomore and Sakeenah agent Ilyas Mehkri, who came from a larger hometown Muslim community, is appreciative of the diversity in Sakeenah. “We’re [all] on the same wavelength, but we all have different backgrounds, different experiences, and to learn from Muslims that have come from different hometowns… it’s a unique experience,” he said.
An especially salient moment in the lives of many Sakeenah members occurred in the weeks following Sep. 11 this year, when a student’s protest ignited Islamophobic threats from hate groups across the country. That week, Malik said, members of Sakeenah were constantly checking in with each other about threats and the latest updates surrounding the event.
“There were a lot of things going through my head, like all the time; it was just almost constant stress for a few days,” Malik said. “But if I was a woman wearing a hijab, I’d be so much more nervous about everything going on.”
Mairaj, who wears a hijab, did feel immense stress. “Me and the other women, you know, we’re very visibly Muslim, so we were a bit more nervous,” she said. “We actually took our name tags off our doors… for safety purposes.”
Other members of Sakeenah stepped up to support those who felt unsafe. “If [people] chose not to go to classes, I would try to take as many notes as I [could]” Latif-Jangda said. “If they were afraid to leave the room, I would grab dinner for people.”
Mairaj and the rest of Sakeenah were relieved that none of the threats aimed at Muslims at WashU became a reality. However, Malik was frustrated that conversations about Islamophobia only happened after Muslim students were stressed and scared.
“I feel like things always have to happen for us to have these conversations that are so important,” he said. “Every time something does happen, it’s always like, in retrospect, ‘Oh, what could we have done better,’ but it’s never, ‘Oh, what can we improve for next time,’” he said.
Most of Sakeenah’s current sophomores are not planning to live there next year, but are excited about the future of the community.
Mairaj has heard of others hoping to join the women’s branch next year, and a few members are applying to be RAs for the Sakeenah floors. According to Weiskopf, LLCs will expand with the demands of the members — meaning that the more people that join Sakeenah, the bigger the living space.
Mairaj sighed when she admitted she probably will have to leave Sakeenah her junior year. “I’m going to miss it,” she said.