Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Daily Jihad: The Everyday Struggle of Being a Muslim At Santa Clara University

by John Heit

“Jihad,” I am sure, is one of the most misunderstood words in the United States today. For most Americans, the term means the murderous “holy war” being carried out by Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda. But this is a reductionist misunderstanding of the word. In fact, in the Islamic tradition, a military holy war is actually the “lesser jihad” compared to the “greater jihad” of an individual Muslim’s internal struggle to come closer to God. The “greater jihad” actually sounds a lot like the daily challenge of all religious people to live ethical lives of faith.

This all came home to me last November when I hosted a forum, “Ethics and Jihad,” at Santa Clara University (SCU). In the midst of discussing the American confusion over the meaning of jihad, a Muslim woman from Yemen said that as a Muslim woman living in the U.S., every day constitutes a jihad for her. Every day she struggles to live her faith and to walk in the path of God amid the pulls and pushes of American culture.

In an attempt to understand this notion of “daily jihad,” I talked with three young women who are students here at SCU. During our discussion, they identified three major challenges to being a Muslim at SCU: religious observance, being a Muslim woman, and social life. In identifying these challenges, they described daily jihad at Santa Clara University—a struggle to live a good life that few others at SCU know about.

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Religious Observance

One of the pillars of Islam is the duty to pray five times a day. But trying to fulfill this duty on a typical day at SCU is no small task. With only ten minutes between classes, these students have to race from one class to pray before the next one starts. Fortunately, there is a prayer room in Campus Ministry that the Muslim students may use. The women with whom I spoke are grateful for that space. However, most classes are not near campus ministry in Benson. This often means getting from class on one side of campus to Benson, praying, and then running off to the next class.

Racing against the clock is not the only challenge to Muslim prayer on campus. A Muslim is supposed to wash before prayer (hands, forearms, face, and feet). One of the young women recounted a time when before prayer she tried to wash her foot in the sink of a public bathroom on campus. Right then, an older non-Muslim woman entered the restroom—and gave her a look that was as puzzled as it was irritated.

A Muslim Woman at an American University

While Islam does not discourage women to have careers or earn money, one of the women (a junior) said, “In Islam a woman is given the role of mother and caretaker. So, she has to find this balance between career and home. The problem of growing up in an American society is that only the career part is constantly pushed while the role of caretaker is neglected, and often viewed as an inferior/suppressed way of life.” It is a great challenge to balance these competing perspectives.

Another of the women (she is in the SCU Law School) converted to Islam last June and was married in October. Before converting, she was “a workaholic” facing a great deal of parental pressure to get a job that pays very well. At first, the role of women in Islam offended her but now she embraces it and even finds it liberating. However, she is quick to add that it is by no means effortless. For instance, it has not been easy for her to wear the hijab (head scarf). Being a convert to Islam, she encounters a great deal of trouble from the people in her life who knew her before she converted. “My parents think I’m a fanatic because I wear it…My friends wish I wouldn’t wear it…I’ve even had people ask how long I have to wear it. It’s really hard because you end up having to justify yourself.”

Social Life at SCU

A major venue for meeting people at SCU is the party scene. People congregate, friends meet other people’s friends, and alcohol is more often than not a factor in the gathering. With Islam’s strong prohibition against consuming alcohol, this SCU scene is not a particularly viable social option for Muslim students. Missing the huge weekend gatherings every September makes creating a social network difficult. One of the women spoke of how, once removed from the party scene, she stopped being invited even to small dinners and gathering of friends. “It makes it hard to meet people. It’s really hard to meet people who share your same values,” she said. These struggles also extend to romance. Every Valentine’s Day when non-Muslim students ask one of the women what she is doing that night she explains that because of her Islamic convictions she does not date. The response is usually an incredulous “Whaaa..?!”

This is not to say that these Muslim students are all alone. They have found and cultivated networks of Muslim students—but not without struggle. The Muslim community on campus is a small and cohesive community. But the smallness of the network is a challenge. During the month of Ramadan (in which Muslims abstain from food, water, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset), having a network of others suffering with you is a source of strength. But because the community is so small, it is easy for students to end up breaking fast alone with a bowl of cereal in a dorm room.

The Muslim students at SCU handle these challenges every day. For them, these are sacred moments when one struggles to step closer to God.

Written by Jon Heit
Hackworth Ethics Fellow
For the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
Other articles written by Jon are available on his blog


John Heit was an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow in 2004-05. Posted June 2005.

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