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Virginia Vasser

Virginia Vassar graduated from Georgetown in 2011 with a major in Arabic and a certificate in African Studies. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, she participated in the Berkley Center' s Junior Year Abroad Network from Dakar, Senegal during the fall of 2009.

Virginia Vassar on Islam's Individuality in Senegal

October 27, 2009

As I sat in a canoe two days ago heading for a small island off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, my life flashed before my eyes for a moment. West Africa is not known for safety in the realm of public transportation, and colossal waves were crashing into rows of jagged rocks right in the path of our small pirogue. As I whimpered and shielded my eyes, our guide laughed and told me I didn't need to be afraid. "Don't worry," he said, "We know what we're doing. And don't forget: we are riding with Sëriñ Tuubaa."

Virginia Vasser on Islam throughout the World

March 29, 2010

In my travels throughout the past four years, I have lived with four Muslim families. In Mali, I spent ten months in a Muslim household; in Senegal, four months with one family and a week with another. I am currently finishing up my third month with a Jordanian Muslim family, and still trying with all my heart to understand what draws people to this religion.

Islam is surprisingly similar between countries, I have found. Aside from the hijaab, the veil women wear here in Jordan to cover their neck and hair, a great deal of the daily practices are the same. Prayer is exactly the same, conducted at the same times and led by similar mosques broadcasting the same public calls in the same language. Differences do exist, particularly in the aspects of Islam certain countries choose to emphasize. Senegalese Muslims focus on the idea of peace and pacifism in Islam, whereas my Palestinian Arab host family stresses the heritage and territoriality of their faith. This makes the two seems almost like completely different religions, and yet details of daily living are bizarrely similar.

I remember my Senegalese host brother telling me that he does not wear gold, because men should not wear gold. My Jordanian host sisters told me the same thing: gold is fine for women but does not belong on men. My host brother always talked about the spiritual benefits of consuming honey, and so does my current host mother. Make-up is forbidden, as is plucking your eyebrows and wearing fake hair. Once I made the mistake of slowly savoring holy “zam-zam” water brought from Mecca. Apparently it is supposed to be downed in three sips. Shortly after, I was told to eat one more date because dates should be eaten in sets of three, five or seven. Islam seems to have a rule concerning every detail of life, which is the only way these habits could be the same in so many places. It is impossible for any person to comply to all of them, and yet the Muslims I have met are conscious and proud of the the fact that the rules exist as something to strive for. As my Jordanian host sister told me, “The Prophet, peace be upon him, was a great man. He thought of everything and told us what to do. He didn’t leave anything out.” I heard the same thing in Mali and in Senegal, spoken in the same proud tone.

It seems strange to me, because I come from a country where our younger history is founded on the idea that we should be in control of what we do. However, I can see now that there is a value to these rules, and oddly enough that they are part of what is appealing about Islam to many people. Can human desire be so different between cultures that part of the Earth actually wants their lives to be dictated, while another shrinks from the idea like cats from water? It is more likely that we all have both within us: a desire to fly free and a desire to be told what is right. There is a place for both in the world of today, but we cannot forget to reflect on our own responsibilities as citizens of the world. The rules of Islam can help give people of different backgrounds common ground and common lifestyles so that they can more easily come together, but there is little point to a religion defining how many dates you should eat at a time if it cannot unify its community’s views on peace and human rights. I am not speaking of Islam specifically, but of all religions where rules about details can cloud the purpose of spirituality as a whole. Rules are to help make sense of the world; let us all follow rules that make sense.