How Islam became my anchor in university

I step into the Eshleman Hall elevator and press the “B” button to take me to the basement, and the elevator door closes. The dry smell of cement, air conditioner and parking lot greets me as I walk down the hall of the basement toward the meditation room. A smile breaks out as I recognize familiar faces. There’s a warm calmness within the room, as some folks sit in corners working on assignments while others sit in loose groups, talking in hushed whispers. We greet each other with “assalaam walaikum” (peace be upon you) and “wa alaikum assalaam” (and onto you peace). I take my favorite red prayer mat from the shelf and begin my prayer in the meditation space of Eshleman Hall.

The meditation space is a secluded, peaceful space that allows me to take a break and breathe. Going into my third year at UC Berkeley in the fall, this practice has become my normal. I have grown tremendously in both a spiritual and personal sense, but it wasn’t until I began to approach the end of my time at Cal that I realized what an amazing opportunity I had been blessed with. At UC Berkeley, I’ve reconsidered what I previously knew about my religion and about my people, but on this college journey, my faith has become closer to me than my heart, and as a result, I have found so much more beauty in it, in this world, in other people and in myself.

Ironically, it’s the turbulent and rebellious environment of college that has actually strengthened my iman, or belief. I was raised in hot, uneventful Fresno, California, where I never needed to ask myself complex, life-evaluating questions. But at UC Berkeley, for the first time, I faced everything from demanding classes to demanding extracurriculars, ambitions and politics that are so interwoven with every second of a student’s life. Eventually, the campus climate of UC Berkeley took a hefty toll on my mental health. After two years of struggling with classes in a politically charged climate and constantly re-evaluating myself, I found myself thinking “failure” was all I knew. As I saw my career plans and future dismantling, a steadfast belief in something stable became really important to me. For me, that stable thing became my faith, Islam. The community I had found and the reaffirmation in my religion led to a newfound strength and stability that helped me re-evaluate who I was and who I wanted to be.

At UC Berkeley, I’ve met peers with more pride in their faith than anyone else I’ve ever met. On this campus, not only do people in my community deal with the day-to-day stressors of academics, but we also face the greater challenges of realizing other parts of our identities — politically, racially, sexually, etc. Nevertheless, despite this, we always have our faith as a grounding point, a place to turn to. It’s reassuring. It’s a place to mourn. To heal. To grow. I can’t tell you how many self-reflections or decisions I’ve made in the meditation room or mosque after salah, a daily Islamic act of worship that involves communications with God. I’ve also met so many beautiful Muslims who support each other and their neighbors, which reinforces positivity and hope.

These experiences have renewed and reinforced my faith, inspiring me to step into a position where I can represent these communities. I must advocate for and learn more about the struggles and experiences folks face from Islamoracism, an institutionalized form of Islamophobia, because they are Black/brown or appear Muslim, even if they aren’t. Islam is also politicized on this campus. There have been accounts in which Muslims here have been ignored, silenced and wrongly persecuted. Along with these external challenges, the Muslim community faces its own internal struggles with discrimination, bias and racism. I don’t expect advocating for these groups and challenges to be easy. (Is anything here?)

I won’t be perfect, and I’ll make mistakes, and there will be plenty of people to call me out on it, but what’s most important is learning from this process, which is what Islam teaches us — to learn from your experiences and to take those lessons with you wherever you go. This community has taught me that part of being Muslim is to fight for and represent fellow Muslims and marginalized communities. This is how we make progress.

Imran Khan is a rising UC Berkeley junior and an ASUC senator-elect.