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What It’s Like Being Muslim At BYU

Photo of Hind Alsboul
Lee Hale / KUER
Hind Alsboul is a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo. She's also Muslim. She said for her, the school is a natural fit.

On a recent Friday, the holy day for Muslims, outside a small carpeted room on the third floor of Brigham Young University’s Wilkinson Student Center, a softly sung call to prayer.

Friday is the holy day for Muslims, and inside, eight students are gathered for prayer and a message from Ahmad Salah.

Photo of sign outside conference room.
Credit Lee Hale / KUER
There are 44 Muslim students at BYU right now. They make up the largest percentage of non-Christian students at the University. Students gather in this conference room on Fridays for the Call to Prayer.

Salah, who volunteers his time as the student’s Imam (the person who leads prayers at a mosque), is a civil engineer who lives with his wife and two daughters in Orem. He graduated with his Ph.D. from BYU in 2009 and he believes this overtly Mormon university is a great place for Muslim students.

Of the 33,000 students at Brigham Young University, over 98 percent are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But of that remaining percentage, the highest non-Christian group are the 44 Muslim students. Half of them are Ph.D. students, many are international, and nearly all of them heard about BYU by word of mouth. BYU Provo does very little international recruiting.

Salah says the Latter-day Saint focus on family and commitment to clean living was a very easy transition from his home in Egypt. He was grateful BYU’s honor code, which has a strict set of guidelines that every student must adhere to, Mormon or otherwise. Students can’t drink or smoke and there are even rules for dating.

“One of my good roommates was dating a girl who he ended up marrying,” Salah said, “She was always in our house, respectfully.”

In BYU approved housing, students of the opposite sex are not allowed into each other’s bedrooms and they have to leave the home or apartment before curfew, which is midnight during the week. For Salah, that showed respect.

One of Salah’s students, junior and econ major Laith Habahbeh agrees that the honor code is a selling point but he admits there are other times when he’s reminded that Provo, Utah is far from his home in Jordan.

“Here you talk to people, you make good conversations, you might do fun stuff together, but most of the time you’ll never see them again,” Habahbeh said.

Habahbeh said in Jordan people really invest in friendships. At BYU it can feel like there’s a practicality to most social encounters. Especially since a lot of students are looking for a spouse.

Credit Lee Hale / KUER

For conservative Muslims like Habanbeh, dating looks a little different than the typical BYU romance. A man might end up pursuing just one woman before marriage but not before seeking permission from her parents and it matters that she’s Muslim. Meaning the dating pool in Provo is … limited.

Hind Alsboul, a Muslim freshman who is also from Jordan, said she isn’t as worried about the dating scene.

“I am not thinking about dating anytime here at BYU,” Alsboul said.

Alsboul was drawn to BYU because she saw it on a list of the 10 safest universities in the U.S. When she first came last Fall she had never met a Latter-day Saint. Now, her life is full of them.

“I’m a very extrovert, I guess, that’s what people tell me,” Alsboul laughed.

Her roommates say she’s a minor celebrity on campus. And a quick walk across the dorm quad is met with shouts of “Hind!” from nearly every direction. She doesn’t mind being the other students only Muslim friend. Or, the only Muslim they have ever met.

Photo of Hind Alsboul.
Credit Lee Hale / KUER
Hind Alsboul has carved out a community for herself at BYU. She says she's a little worried, though, about what might happen to that community when her roommates leave for their missions next year.

“One person asked if I rode a camel to school back home,” Alsboul recalled. “I just say, ‘C’mon people, it’s 2019.’”

It’s her good nature and sense of humor that keeps the sense of “otherness” from sinking in. She says she’s never felt lonely. But she is a little worried about her Sophomore year.

All three of Alsboul’s roommates, who she’s grown attached too, are planning to serve proselytizing missions before next school year. Meaning they’ll spend a year and a half preaching Latter-day Saint theology somewhere in the world.

Her roommate Sophie Brown, a freshman from Castle Rock, Colorado, said she’s grateful to have lived with a Muslim before her mission.

“I think it’s great what she believes,” Brown said. “It gives me hope for the world. Hind is a very bright person.”

Brown said their difference in belief doesn’t dampen her desire to “preach the gospel” but it does give her pause. She’s willing to accept that the Latter-day Saint theology might not be right for everyone for one reason or another.

And when it comes to what she sees as the most important beliefs, how people treat one another and see the world, she said the differences between her and Alsboul are really just vocabulary.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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