By Abby Mace
October 29, 2013
Upon arriving in the spring of 2010, UConn’s Islamic religious leader Shaikh Ayman Alharbi’s life has been a balancing act between his native Islamic culture and his newfound American one.
A native of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Alharbi has been immersed in Islam his entire life. He served as a religious leader at mosques in Mecca, a city crowned as one of the world’s holiest places in Islamic culture. As part of the five pillars of Islam, Muslims must make a pilgrimage or “hajj to Mecca to unite with others of their culture and reconnect with Allah.
Alharbi immigrated to Connecticut three years ago to obtain his master’s and doctorate degrees in engineering and computer science, while serving as a teaching assistant. Prior to becoming Conn’s Islamic religious leader, he also took a six-month course at the University’s Language and Cultural Center to improve his English.
At UConn, Alharbi is the Imam of the Masjid (mosque) and leads a circle of gathering called Halaqah every Thursday. He also coordinates with the Muslim Student Association to recruit new members and raise money for the group’s service activities.
Alharbi’s move to Storrs marked a dramatic shift in his life, especially in his religious experiences. Coming from a city in which he conducted the religious activities at mosques of over 2,000 followers to a modest brick structure in the midst of a college campus, Alharbi has learned to meld the best of both worlds–the American and the Islamic–in his teachings to students.
“I try to show how we can combine the strengths of culture here with the principles of Islam,” Alharbi said. “It’s important to show how students can adapt to that environment and adopt that way of life.”
Alharbi said that America’s most notable “strength” is the quality of the academic offerings. Students are driven to work hard so that they succeed in their studies, which coincided with the principles of Islam.
“Islam encourages students to work well in any situation and perfect their work,” Alharbi said.
While the core of Alharbi’s work is to lead prayer at the mosque in adherence to the second pillar of Islam, he also focuses on taking care of the Muslim student as a whole. Many Muslims growing up in Connecticut don’t get the opportunity to interact with other Muslims, which can affect their understanding of Islamic culture, MSA President Samir Chaudhry said. Yet Alharbi has allowed UConn Muslim students to immerse themselves in their culture while providing a sense of support, Chaudhry added.
“I did not have many Muslim friends and that took a toll on my personal understanding of what Islam was and what a Muslim actually does,” Chaudhry said. “Ayman is someone who is a good resource for support, whether you don’t understand what being a Muslim means, or how to pray, or how to read the Quran, or how to better yourself, he can help in all these things and more if you simply ask.”
There is also another, more private balance Alharbi must maintain: the balance between his career and religious activities and that of his family life. Alharbi is married with two young daughters and he tries to instill the Islamic values without forcing them, he said. To do this, he teaches portions of Islamic prayers but said he won’t enforce regular prayer until his daughters have reached the age of 10.
Yet the most important lesson Alharbi teaches, Chaudhry said, applies to all ages and religions.
“The most important lesson Ayman has given us at the Masjid is that we should be more open when talking to other people,” he said. “In Islam we do not judge other people for their actions, we do not know whether those other people are better than us or not, no matter what they’re exterior tells us. We do not know what’s inside of them.”