Liyana is an extraordinary woman on Notre Dame’s campus, and I am blessed to consider her a dear friend. She is a Muslim woman graduating from the University of Notre Dame with more knowledge about the Catholic faith than most Catholics here (and around the world, for that matter). How? After four years at ND, Liyana will soon graduate with a degree in Theology.
I had the opportunity to sit down this week to chat with Liyana about life and faith and what it has been like to find a home at Notre Dame as a Muslim student from Malaysia.
Liyana grew up in Malaysia, where 60 percent of people identify themselves as Muslim. … I was extremely interested to find out how studying Catholic Theology at Notre Dame has informed Liyana’s understanding of her own religion.
Liyana grew up in Malaysia, where 60 percent of people identify themselves as Muslim. The culture as a whole is a conservative one, in which children grow up learning the intricacies of Islam. Liyana began wearing the hijab, the veil worn by many Muslim women, when she was seven years old. Wearing this modest head covering is as normal to her as putting on any other clothing for the day; it simply is what she does. She was taught to pray five times a day from very early on, and Islam has always been an integral part of her identity and way of life.
A college scholarship program essentially decided that Liyana would attend Notre Dame. She distinctly remembers realizing the school was Catholic in her freshman seminar course, where she noticed a crucifix mounted on the wall. She saw the same cross in her next class and in her next one, and by the end of the day she realized there was something distinctly different about this school. Islam does not have any symbols or images, so at Islamic schools in Malaysia where some of Liyana’s friends attend university, the Muslim identity is present because it is lived in and spoken about rather than represented in images such as the crucifix present in every classroom on Notre Dame’s campus. The longer Liyana has lived here, the more she has seen that Christianity can be the same way: talked about and lived in.
Liyana entered her education at Notre Dame as an engineering major. After some important conversations with her Foundations of Theology teacher, she realized theology was something worth pursuing during her time here and beyond because it addresses important issues that engage her deep investment in her Islamic faith and asks the “important questions.”
She realized how much she didn’t know about Christianity and developed a thirst to learn more. Liyana joined a group of Theology graduate students who study the Qur’an, which she remained in for one semester. She gradually progressed from declaring a Theology minor to a supplemental major to a full-blown second major in Theology.
I was extremely interested to find out how studying Catholic Theology at Notre Dame has informed Liyana’s understanding of her own religion, which Christian beliefs she has adopted into her own understanding of God and life and the world, and which ones she takes issues with. In Islam, Liyana explained, there is a “bookkeeping” idea of sinfulness: one is not born a “sinner,” as in the Christian tradition, but rather can become sinful. There is a sort of record kept, and sins can be cancelled out with good deeds. Liyana finds that the Christian idea of being born sinful is hard to accept, but she likes the idea that sins are forgiven in Christ. She also thinks Muslims could benefit from an authority, Pope-like figure to unify the “colorful” distribution of Islam, and admires that Catholics have such a figure to look to for spiritual direction.
The elements of her Islamic faith that have really anchored her to the religion she grew up with, even despite engaging so deeply in another religion during her time here, are the Qur’an and personal prayer.
In attempting to put myself in Liyana’s shoes – which I really cannot, because they’re such beautifully unique shoes – I was curious as to whether she feels that she has found a home here at such a Catholic school as a Muslim student. Her answer? A resounding yes. She was skeptical upon arrival about whether her faith could grow in a place that was so different from where she grew up, but she has found that every year has met her with pleasant surprises. She has found a home in the Muslim Student Association on campus, which she is the president of this year. She is especially thankful for the opportunity to engage in personal and communal prayer in the Meditation Room in the Campus Ministry office in CoMo.
One of the most encouraging comments Liyana made during our conversation was that Notre Dame has really started to listen to what students of other religions have to say, which has been a huge transition since she arrived as a freshman. She feels that she can speak about faith candidly and freely here, which in itself already makes ND feel like home to her. After she graduates, Liyana hopes to work in interfaith dialogue, particularly in Malaysia, where she feels this ministry is particularly needed. She says she will dearly miss CoMo, the Campus Ministry office, and going to Mass after graduation. “I love it here,” she smiled.