The Muslim Leadership Lab at Dwight Hall Creates Spaces for Healing, Community, and Reflection for Muslim Students at Yale

As students engage in heightened levels of political activism on campus, the support offered by the Muslim Leadership Lab at Dwight Hall (MLL) is more important than ever. Founded in 2018 by Program Director Abdul-Rehman Malik, MLL aims to grow civic leadership skills among Muslim students at Yale and catalyze new directions for Muslim life on college campuses nationwide. 

“From the beginning, the aspiration of the Muslim Leadership Lab has been to give students an understanding of the context they’re living in, along with practical, meaningful skills and ways of being in the world that allow them to become agents of mercy, compassion, and justice,” emphasized Abdul-Rehman. “We want students to grow while embracing their Muslim identity publicly and on their own terms without it being something they have to hide.”

The ongoing war in Gaza has spurred many Muslim students into action at Yale and across the country. 

“Students are outraged, hurt, and they’re seeing what they consider to be a profound injustice,” observed Abdul-Rehman. “They’re acting in an incredibly politically sensitive environment on campus, where students have been doxxed or otherwise targeted for being politically active. . . It’s probably the first time that the majority of them have experienced censorship for exercising their freedom of speech and their right to protest.”

Due to students’ high level of mobilization, activist burnout has been rampant, with significant anxiety surrounding the consequences of engaging in political activism on campus. 

MLL has played a critical role in supporting students in this difficult moment. Spring 2024 programming was intentionally launched with an early-January retreat. Titled “The Heart of Liberation,” the retreat convened students who had been politically active on campus in the past few months. Many had expressed a strong desire for a space for healing and honest conversation where they could engage the intersection of their activism and spirituality. 

“The goal of the retreat was to provide students with some tools and approaches on how to build up their spiritual resources as they engage in the work of social justice,” emphasized Abdul-Rehman. 

Three visiting scholar-activists joined the MLL cohort for the retreat and led interactive workshops and sessions for students. Dr. Martin Nguyen, Chair of Religious Studies at Fairfield University and an award-winning theologian, worked with students on how to engage in a theology of social justice in real time. Abdul-Rehman summarized the questions that Dr. Nguyen’s session raised: “What are the questions that we are asking of our own tradition and of spiritual texts? How are we having conversations with one another when witnessing the horrors of war? Can theology and spirituality be a way of understanding what is going on so that we can fully engage with the work of solidarity that is needed globally to bring about a permanent ceasefire in Gaza?” 

Dr. Donna Auston, a longtime racial justice activist and lecturer at Rutgers University, also joined the retreat, leading a series of sessions on decolonizing spirituality. Drawing upon Black Muslim tradition, Black Christian tradition, the civil rights movement, and Black feminism, she constructed a workshop around understanding “where our spirituality is coming from and how we can direct our spiritual practices and language towards the work of collective liberation.”

Finally, Dr. Nabila Munawar, an independent scholar and sociologist from the London School of Economics, led a session on embodied spirituality. Weaving together work around identity and sacred text, she asked students to plot the ways in which their bodies had been holding both moments of incredible hardship and pain and moments of joy and ease in the last few months.

From left: Dr. Donna Auston, Dr. Nabila Munawar, Dr. Martin Nguyen, and Abdul-Rehman Malik

Abdul-Rehman described the final activity of Dr. Munawar’s workshop and the entire retreat, where she encouraged students to write a postcard from the place of freedom. “She asked, when we get to freedom, what is the postcard that you’re going to write to your family to tell them what freedom looks like? . . .There were tears–it was incredibly powerful.”  

When reflecting on the retreat as a whole, Abdul-Rehman noted that “it ended up being a really important part of so many students’ experiences of activism on campus, giving them time to process what had been going on in a space that felt brave, but safe.”

Most importantly, “it also gave time for joy. There was a lot of joy over those 48 hours of being together away from campus, being able to put their phones down, to talk and play and laugh, and have permission to do so. When the world looks so bleak, you often feel guilty about doing those things. As we’re told, despair is a choice that the privileged have. For those who are in the midst of injustice or oppression–if you despair, you die. It helped students to recognize that joy and connection are such an important part of being an organizer and an activist.”

Students echoed these sentiments. One Yale College senior told Abdul-Rehman that the retreat was the most joyful experience she had had at Yale. 

Then in February, MLL held its annual pilgrimage to the gravesites of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, which was attended by more than 20 people. “The visit is always a powerful moment of reconnection to our collective American history, Muslim history, and particularly Black Muslim history,” said Abdul-Rehman. 

Owing to the “prayerful” yet “accessible” nature of the pilgrimage, Abdul-Rehman noted that a diverse group was drawn to it, including non-Muslim individuals and people who were not from Yale but had heard about the event on social media. The group also paid respects at the graves of James Baldwin and Paul Robeson, connecting their work with the work of Dr. Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X during the closing days of Black History Month. 

The annual pilgrimage is “always a powerful moment of community,” reflected Abdul-Rehman, “and a reminder for students that the work of liberation is a serious work. We have martyrs who are testimony to that–remarkable individuals who dedicated their lives to the cause.”

Imam Ahmad Deeb

Back on campus in March, MLL hosted Imam Ahmad Deeb, a young, dynamic Imam and scholar from Ohio who is currently conducting a large-scale survey and research project on Muslim engagement (focusing on millennials and Gen X) with Muslim religious institutions, called Project In a workshop held at Dwight Hall, 35 members of the community joined a spirited discussion about what belonging means and who is being served or not served by today’s religious and community institutions. 

Abdul-Rehman noted the different backgrounds and perspectives of the attendees, from New Haven community members and graduate and professional students to members of the Yale Black Muslim Students Association and self-identified queer Muslims. “It was a powerful, intergenerational bringing-together of various bits and pieces of Yale’s Muslim community and the Yale community at large,” reflected Abdul-Rehman.  

MLL is now finalizing its third annual Imam Hussein Lecture on Social Justice, which will be held on April 15th at the Humanities Quadrangle and will feature Dr. Maryam Kashani from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The Imam Hussein lecture is an MLL program that centers and celebrates Shia Muslim thought, creative action, theology, and activism and is supported by the Shia Racial Justice Coalition and Yale’s Religious Studies department. 

Dr. Maryam’s lecture will focus on the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson in Karbala, connecting that moment to what is happening in the world today and underlining how the work of liberation is an ancient work. 

The Muslim Leadership Lab is a part of the Advance pillar of Dwight Hall’s Engage, Grow, and Advance program delivery model, developing innovative and collaborative programming to promote lasting change in New Haven and around the world. 

You may contribute to the Muslim Leadership Lab here or follow @yalemll on Instagram to stay up-to-date on future events. 

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