|The quest to find religion
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|Yazar:||desert [ 10.11.09, 12:49 ]|
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The quest to find religion
After a sacred trek, Beth Bowman '10 converted to Islam
by Justine Root
Features | 11/3/09
Posted online at 1:03 AM EST on 11/3/09
New York native Beth Bowman '10 did not turn away from the Middle East after Sept. 11. Instead, she strove to understand it.
"There was so much talk on the news constantly about Islam," Bowman said, "and I knew I was incredibly opposed to us going into Iraq. I remember watching on the news when I was in the ninth grade and just being absolutely disgusted and wishing there was something I could do. It was a combination of those two things that really got me interested in the Middle East and got me thinking about Islam."
Bowman, who was raised a Catholic, continued to delve into Middle Eastern culture both academically and spiritually after coming to Brandeis. An Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies major, Bowman initially experimented with Judaism before turning to Islam. The more Bowman learned about the theology of Islam through classes on subjects like Sufism, the more she began to think to herself, "Yes, I believe this is true."
Although Bowman still considers Judaism and Christianity to be "true" religions, she said she was drawn to Islam because of the definitive answers it gave her.
"I guess growing up Catholic, I felt like anytime I asked a question I either wasn't given a solid answer or I was simply told to rely on faith and nothing else," Bowman said. "I wanted more solid answers."
Bowman was also intrigued by the Islamic prayer experience.
"The way you pray in Islam is a full-body experience," Bowman said. "The apex of the prayer comes when you're bending down and your head is lower than your heart... [it symbolizes that] you're supposed to elevate your heart rather than your head."
Last fall, Bowman took another step toward a deeper understanding of Islam when she decided that she wanted to fast for Ramadan, the Islamic month of daytime fasting.
"I decided I wanted to fast for Ramadan, kind of in solidarity with my Muslim friends and kind of for myself, just to see if I could do it. â€¦ It [turned out to be] an amazing fast. [Ramadan] is not just a fast from food, and it's not just a fast from water-it's a fast from backbiting," she said.
Bowman said the Muslim community at Brandeis was incredibly receptive to her participation in Ramadan, and she frequently joined its members for Iftar (the meal at which Muslims break the fast) and worshipped with them. Initially, Bowman was hesitant to join her Muslim peers for prayer-"But, I don't really know what to do!" she told them-but after participating in a multitude of Muslim Student Association-sponsored events, she found that she "felt really at home" in the Islamic world. In December of 2008, Bowman converted to the religion by reciting the shahada, which entails the declaration of one's belief in the unity of God and in the idea that Muhammad is the prophet of God.
"I actually [converted] here at Brandeis, in our MSA suite, and it was absolutely amazing," Bowman said. "The suite was packed with people; there was just so much support from the community. Everyone was so excited."
Bowman's spiritual growth has brought challenges as well as joy. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, she witnessed how young adults "are very liable to being affected by [negative labels], especially when there isn't a conscious effort to combat stereotypes, which there certainly wasn't after 9/11."
Now, as a young woman practicing Islam, she is affected by those misconceptions that were embedded in some of her peers.
"The majority of the American population isn't really exposed to Muslims other than what they see on the news, â€¦ and even if you [try to show people the parallels between religions like Christianity and Islam], it's still very hard because there are a lot of concepts that have been misconstrued by the media, and I don't see that changing anytime in the future," Bowman said. "And I've heard stories from my friends of mine about being harassed for wearing hijab, being called terrorists just because their family is Muslim."
However, Bowman, now the MSA's treasurer, thinks her conversion is a unique opportunity to educate other people about Islam. When asked how she is generally received when she tells others she is a Muslim, Bowman said that a lot of people are "really interested" in the religion.
"I think very few people meet converts to Islam, â€¦ so I think it provides people with a good opportunity to ask questions that they may not normally feel comfortable asking someone who was born Muslim," Bowman said. "And I think my being raised with Christianity also allows them to ask questions like, 'How does this relate to Christianity? â€¦ Can you show me the difference between the two?'"
In Bowman's view, Muslims and spiritual students, in general, are somewhat better understood at Brandeis because of the school's religious underpinnings. "At a lot of institutions of higher learning, you're looked down upon if you're a theist, like, 'Well, if you're logical and intelligent, why would you ever believe in God?'"
But the conditions for Brandeis' Muslims are still far from ideal. For instance, it is difficult for Bowman and other MSA members to share their space and activities with peers on account of the small size of the MSA suite, which is located in the Usdan Student Center.
"[The MSA suite] is the space that we have to host our Iftars during Ramadan, â€¦ and we try to open those up to the Brandeis community based on the funding that the [Finance] Board gives us, and it is just very hard for us to have a large group of people in [the suite] to come and share in the experience because it's such a small, cramped space."
"I think a lot of students are intimidated [by the idea of coming] to events that we have. For example, during Ramadan I know that some students would feel uncomfortable coming to the MSA suite to eat with us just because it is our prayer space," Bowman said. "But â€¦ we absolutely love it when students come and are interested in what's going on with us and what we're doing, with why we do the things we do. We love those kind of questions because it allows us to clear up misconceptions that may have existed previously. â€¦ We want to show them the reality of Islam."
In the meantime, Bowman hopes that Brandeis will continue to cultivate a friendlier environment for Islamic practitioners by educating professors on the existence of Muslim holidays; Bowman recalled having difficulty attending Jumah-a Friday prayer session that requires Muslims to pray in congregation after listening to a short sermon-last semester due to her class schedule.
"Luckily, I had a religion class at that time, so I could tell my teacher, 'Every Friday I'm going to leave 15 minutes early,' and then I would just wind up sprinting down to Usdan to catch the very end of the sermon and pray," Bowman remembered. "But it's just frustrating that there are students who are excluded from [prayer] just because of the way the [class] schedule is set up and [because some professors] aren't necessarily flexible and won't let students leave early."
Alissa Cherry '10, a friend of Bowman's, saw her through the conversion process.
"She's very dedicated," Cherry said. "It's really become a strong part of her life now. I know she was always interested in it and she thought about it for a while, and it was a very heartfelt change."
Media Credit: Max Breitstein Matza
Beth Bowman '10, an Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies major who was raised a Catholic, converted to Islam last December by reciting the shahada.
Media Credit: Max Breitstein Matza
Bowman describes Islamic prayer as a "full body experience."
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