Duke’s Center for Muslim Life Puts Its Faith in a Student-Centric Approach

'We have to take care of our hearts. We have to take care of our spirits.'

Students at the Center for Muslim Life in pre-pandemic days.

Students form the heart of The Center for Muslim Life (CML) faith community. From the services the center offers to the events it sponsors, virtually every aspect of CML is a response to feedback from its undergraduate and graduate student members.

There’s a good reason for that, according to center Director and Chaplain Joshua Salaam. “We follow a geographic model, meaning we serve any student at Duke who identifies as Muslim, regardless of their specific spiritual practices or religious opinions,” he said. “This is in contrast to a traditional model that groups people based on theological beliefs or religious practices.”

For many students, this is a crucial difference that creates a welcoming, inclusive community. “I know how it can feel uncomfortable to be in judgmental religious spaces, but the Center for Muslim Life is a safe and welcoming space where I can be myself,” said Maya Ghanem ’23, who intends to major in environmental health and justice.

Hana Hendi ’23, a biology major with a chemistry minor, said the center “reaches its members at different stages of faith. “By opening their doors to students with any kind of concern, from relationships to financial anxiety, CML guides students toward addressing their own spiritual priorities,” Hendi said.

CML’s student-centric approach has become more important as it has added new services to address the anxieties of isolation during the pandemic.

“Because of all the stress leading up to this semester,” Salaam said, “we scaled back on some of our regular events to leave us time to check on students individually. We felt that was more important than any single program would have been.”

With an estimated 500 or so Muslim students attending Duke, checking in on each one was a daunting task. But to many students, it was a lifeline.

“The CML has made a huge difference in my life,” first-year student Ghanem said. “It has been a safe space for me and a place where I can connect with friends who share my faith. I honestly cannot imagine my first year at Duke without the CML.”

During the pandemic, Muslim students meet over Zoom.
Center officials say they see their roles as facilitators charged with making student visions a reality. Maryam Arain, the center’s student development coordinator, said she sees this dynamic at work when planning events. “One of the first questions we ask is, ‘Who are the students who could be involved in this and help make this happen?’” she said. “The students then usually ask for support around logistics but want creative control — which is exactly the model I think works well when it comes to student collaborations.”

With the help of additional CML staff members Samaiyah Faison and Imam Waheed, the Center will continue to put a priority on services and events that deliver community throughout the academic year.

“Being able to come together in a place of peace is so important,” Salaam said. “The world is full of distractions that can divert you from what's really important. We have to take care of our hearts, we have to take care of our spirits. We have to take care of ourselves. The center is one of the ways to do that.”

The CML will continue its regular programming virtually during the spring semester in order to sustain this feeling of community and offer a weekly reading from the Quran, a Friday afternoon prayer service, a popular book club, and monthly open discussion opportunities led by students.

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