MSA unpacks “Cultural Baggage”

A previous MSA meeting in which the organization welcomed members back to campus following break. (Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus)

A previous MSA meeting in which the organization welcomed members back to campus following break. (Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus)

The Muslim Student Association (MSA) presented “Cultural Baggage” at Rome Ballroom Thursday night. Muslim and non-Muslim students gathered to learn about distinguishing the line between religion and culture with two guest speakers of South Asian descent. The event itself began later than expected, with MSA president Fayssal Saleh saying, “How much more cultural can it get than us starting 45 minutes later than usual?” 

Haarith Vohra, the dawah chair, began with reciting from the Quran to begin the event in the name of Allah. Saleh introduced the organization’s mission statement, which is to provide a welcoming and opening environment for Muslim and non-Muslim students to practice and develop their understanding of Islam. A brief video called “Masjid Part Two: Damage Control” was played. The video was filmed in the same style of “The Office” and featured new and returning MSA board members.  

The main theme of the night was to try to differentiate religion from culture so that the two aren’t intermingled. As a result of this, it’s common for people in Arab countries to have strong cultural values that tie into Islam, Zaim Rana, the digital media chair, said. It’s important to separate Islam from culture because then the two can be embraced to their fullest extent. 

“It’s really easy for our culture to…take a lot of things out of context because of our cultural influences. Being able to have a clear understanding as to where the religion is and where the culture is allows us to be able to truly express our culture without crossing the boundaries of religion and vice versa,” Saleh, a sixth semester economics major, said. 

Nihal Khan was the first speaker of the night. Khan is a Montclair State University alumni and is currently working on his master’s degree in religious studies at the Hartford Seminary. His talk focused on the importance of defining one’s self in order to further understand one’s own individuality and separating culture from spirituality.  

Khan discussed how culture is very neutral. For example, the culture that an individual may have from their family can be different than the culture they know from being an American. Thus, it’s important to be able to understand the individual self so that the individual can define themselves, or otherwise “someone else will define you,” Khan said. 

The second speaker of the night was Sohail Qureshi, a teacher with five years of experience in New York City public schools and is well-known for his energetic talks. Qureshi focused more on importance of culture and its use in everyday life. 

Qureshi emphasized how culture is “a beautiful thing if used correctly.” He used how he interacts with his students as an example. While being from the Bronx and teaching kids from the very same neighborhood, he knows how they act, speak and dress. Qureshi said that culture allows people to experience new things, especially if they open themselves up to people of other identities.  

Qureshi mentioned how it’s important to not let culture bleed into an individual’s faith and identify with more than one’s religion. Some aspects of Islam are more cultural like wardrobe and more specifically, the thobe.  

“We have a lot of cultural customs and influences as to wearing a thobe. A lot of people can take this as a sign of religiosity when really it’s nothing more than a garment. Really, it’s more about who you are as an individual and your values and principles that make you what you are religious-wise,” Saleh said.  

After Qureshi delivered positive affirmations, he ended his talk by discussing how everyone has beautiful characteristics and Islam helps refine and better them as people. 


Brandon Barzola is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at brandon.barzola@uconn.edu.