msa
Photo from Zahraa Mohammed

This week's annual Islamic Discovery Series held by Penn Muslim Students Association culminated in a lecture from guest speaker Yasmin Mogahed, a renowned author and speaker in the Muslim community.

The theme this year was dubbed The Question of "Why": Islamic Intentions and Interpretations, as an expansion of Penn’s “Year of Why.” It seeks to encourage inner reflection — questioning intentions and why people do what they do – as well as increasing awareness of Muslim culture and practices.

This year’s Islamic Discovery Series is part of MSA’s continued efforts to spread awareness of Islam and mutual understanding in the current political climate. 

"The biggest thing that we try to get out of IDS is the idea that there is a lot of fear surrounding things you don’t know," College senior and MSA President Zahraa Mohammed said. "In order to overcome that fear, you have to get to know the people behind it. Then you’ll see a lot of similarities and a lot of understanding start to grow out of that.”

Over 100 students from universities around Philadelphia came to hear Mogahed’s lecture. 

Mogahed focused on mental health and how it plays into spirituality and religion.

“In Eastern philosophies … your spiritual health is supposed to be your mental health. Those are two entirely different things, and one impacts the other; they are not one and the same,” Mohammed said. 

The speaker introduced new ways for Penn students to look at mental health, to see that there is a spiritual realm to it, and to learn how to cater to your heart in a way that wasn’t really advocated for before and not researched about, Mohammed added.  

The four biggest aspects of Mogahed’s spiritual first aid kit, the central message of her talk, were prayer, remembrance, connecting hearts to the Quran, and the emotional wellbeing of healing. “If a person doesn’t pray, it’s like a person who doesn’t breathe,” Mogahed said, likening prayer to oxygen, or taking prescribed medication when one is sick. She also discussed the necessity as well as ease of practicing spirituality while living a worldly life.

“The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence,” Mogahed added. Using the example of a rear-view mirror, she emphasized the importance of learning self-compassion and being able to forgive yourself for not being perfect. 

While it is important to learn lessons from the past, it is crucial to prevent fixating on it, she said – staring only at the rear-view mirror while driving will inevitably lead to a crash.

2018 Wharton graduate Meriem Djelmami-Hani had previously attended a conference where she heard Mogahed speak and decided she had to hear Mogahed speak again. This time, Djelmami-Hani said she liked “how [Mogahed] said whatever you focus on grows."

"If you focus on positive aspects of your life, you will continue to see those positive things and you’ll be able to grow more readily," Djelmami-Hani said. "In the same way, if you focus on the negatives and tend to have a pessimistic mentality, you will be more likely to head in that path as well."

Toward the end of her lecture, Mogahed sparked a lively discussion with engaging input from the audience. Attendees asked thought-provoking questions, including how to get mental health treatment amid the pushback and stigma in the Muslim community against it. Mogahed advised those in need to seek out help while trusting in God at the same time, and to allow God to be the one guiding them through the actual therapy.

“I thought she was incredibly knowledgeable about different topics in Islam that people are struggling with, and that I am personally struggling with,” College senior Methany Eltigani said. “She had a really good way of relating complex topics to really simple examples, and that was very helpful in making us understand it.” 

Mogahed utilized the two analogies of a journey and the body throughout her talk, riffing on the notion of needing guidance and a GPS, as well as feeding the spiritual body what it needs.

MSA kicked off the IDS week with two traditional events from previous years: the Meet a Muslim Booth and Cultural Lounge. Started in 2015, the Meet a Muslim Booth took place on Monday to give Penn students the opportunity to ask questions and start a conversation with MSA members on Locust Walk. 

The Cultural Lounge brought in food, dress, and music from various countries in which Islam is represented, from Malaysia to Lebanon to Senegal. MSA Speaks, an event new this year, provided an open forum for everyone, regardless of faith, to share their stories and foster relationships. Jummah on the Green is a Friday congregational prayer on College Green, which offered passersby a glimpse into the Muslim community and a sensation of divinity.

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