15 Signs Your MSA is Just a Social/Cultural Club

The Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) in the United States or Islamic Societies (Isoc) in the United Kingdom at colleges, universities, and (increasingly) high schools play a significant — sometimes even pivotal — role in Islamic development of Muslim youth. The impact of the MSA can be so decisive, in fact, that Muslim adolescents and their parents should factor in a college’s Muslim community and MSA in deciding whether or not to attend that school.

Unfortunately, many MSAs around the country have a tendency to devolve into little more than social or cultural clubs. This is related to the problem of “cliquishness,” a general problem that plagues not only MSAs, but also mosques. But the problem is deeper than that.

The fact of the matter is, the very idea of a group of people getting together for the purpose of increasing and improving their worship of God is just weird. These kinds of groups don’t typically exist in the college environment or society at large, for that matter. The only two reasons young people in college typically get together in a group is to 1) socialize and network on the basis of some shared interest or ethnic background, or 2) organize for a particular social justice cause. “Worship of and devotion to God” don’t fit into either of those categories, so MSAs tend to minimize or disregard the devotional aspect — which should really be the whole purpose of the MSA — and instead implicitly, if not explicitly, make the MSA all about socializing.

Has your MSA fallen into this trap?

Just like individuals, organizations can also have an underlying intention (niyya). And since the merits of actions are based on their intentions, as the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) has told us, it behooves us to uncover the true intentions behind our MSAs and to purify any defects we find.

The difficulty is that intentions are not always manifest. They can be hidden. For example, socializing is an important part of worshiping Allah. As Muslims, we should be connecting with others, and the MSA should be facilitating that in the right way. But is the intention behind that socialization sound, i.e., ultimately for the sake of Allah? Or something else?

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To help you diagnose the state of your MSA’s “heart,” so to speak, here are the top 15 signs that your MSA might really be nothing more than a social/cultural club. If many of these signs apply to your MSA, then something is wrong.

15 Signs That Your MSA/Isoc is Just a Social Club

1. Your MSA does not have regular study circles dedicated to educating MSA members on the bare essentials of faith and practice (fiqh of salah, fasting, etc., basic pillars of iman and aqidah, tajweed, etc.). If your MSA doesn’t have anyone qualified on campus to teach these subjects, no effort is made or funding is dedicated to bring qualified people to campus to teach said subjects.

2. Your MSA does not organize congregational prayer (e.g., fajr, isha, etc.) other than Friday prayers.

3. Your MSA does not have a sustained dawah effort directed toward the student body at large, for both non-Muslims AND Muslims.

4. The bulk of the MSA budget revolves around funding dinner events, socials, mixers, etc.

5. Your MSA’s annual Islam Awareness Week/Month is mostly comprised of culture- and social-based programming, e.g., henna-tattoo booths, “ethnic food” tasting, ethnic garb “fashion shows”, Middle Eastern music and poetry, ice cream socials, etc.

6. Your MSA refrains from getting involved in “politics” when it comes to “controversial” issues like Palestine, #BlackLivesMatter, immigration, raising the minimum wage for university employees, etc., but has no hesitation co-sponsoring/endorsing events with LGBT groups, campus Democrats/Republicans, anything related to “denouncing Islamic extremism,” other events/causes that have mainstream support but are no less political in nature.

7. Your MSA’s number one priority is being “more welcoming” and “more inclusive,” but the desired inclusivity is clearly catering towards a very specific demographic or clique.

8. According to your MSA, being “more inclusive” invariably means being “less conservative.” No one talks about inclusivity in terms of, for example, being more welcoming to the disabled, to black students, to students of different socio-economic backgrounds, to international or foreign exchange students, to people in surrounding communities, to the homeless and the needy who may live near campus and who would love to be invited to an MSA event and would be very grateful for a free meal, etc.

9. Your MSA’s dedicated prayer space or musalla on campus is always a mess and is primarily used as a storage closet (storing all the food supplies/utensils needed for the annual dinners, banquets, etc.).

10. Your school is one of the few that has a full-time Muslim chaplain, but he or she is not utilized for any recurring MSA programming other than Friday prayer or token interfaith events. His/her office hours are usually unattended.

11. Your MSA is events-based and has no long term roadmap that extends beyond the present year, let alone 4 years in the future after all current members have graduated. Social clubs, after all, are about friendships, networking, and having fun in the present and don’t need to build towards anything larger in the future.

12. You never hear from Muslim alumni and few if any Muslim alumni care to “give back” to the MSA by donating funds or getting involved in any other way. If the only value said alumni got from the MSA was socializing with Muslim friends, it’s no surprise they’re not inspired to make contributions to what they see as just another social club. After all, their Muslim friends graduated with them, so why bother?

13. Casual gender mixing is the norm for your MSA, at events, at internal organizational meetings, etc. Most of your MSA members, even board members, openly flirt, go to each others’ dorm rooms, eat meals with each other on what can only be described as “group dates,” and no one thinks twice about any of that.

14. Your MSA doesn’t even consider organizing gender-specific activities, e.g., “Sisters’ Quran Study,” “Sisters’ Bowling Night,” “Brothers’ Qiyam Night,” “Brothers’ Pizza Social,” etc. The mindset is, why split people up when everyone can have fun together?

15. Your MSA thinks that inculcating bonds and developing deep friendships are ends in themselves, rather than understanding that those things are just means towards what should be the true purpose of the MSA.

 

Ultimately, if you are on the executive board of your MSA or just an active member, ask yourself one question: If all the MSA provides is a social outlet, what value does that provide to Muslims (or non-Muslims) on campus? College life provides endless opportunities to socialize, so yet another social club, even if Muslim-flavored, does not provide much additional value to students on campus.

But what if there were a campus organization that offered students the opportunity to get closer to their Creator? An organization that offered the opportunity for spiritual enrichment and true peace in difficult and confusing times? That would be something truly valuable — something that can’t be provided by just another social or cultural club.

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15 responses to “15 Signs Your MSA is Just a Social/Cultural Club”

  1. Flint says:

    And what would be your solution aside from asking rhetorical questions and implying only that there is something wrong? Thanks for pointing out 15 possible problems and 15 possible things every MSA supposedly should be doing but what else?

    Ive been the president of an MSA and Allah knows it isnt easy to both maintain and carry an organization to the next level. My year was acceptable Alhamdulillah but there is a disconnect between those who know and those who simply criticize. Even during my year MSAs were being spat on for being social clubs and places to hookup and it smeared those who try so hard to do the right thing. Even so called scholars and shiekhs and teachers ran their mouths with nothing to back themselves. All talk and no solutions.

    I agree that the MSAs have gone downhill and have issues – I actually agree with a lot of the “signs” – but this is no better than the high minded talk of the past that I had to debunk and fight alongside the ever present fight to stay legitimate within the college system itself. Events are such a problem because the MSA is either always on the defensive or hesitant to take the offensive on issues. We are the medium between the Masjid and the home.

    MSAs dont hold the responsibilities of the Masjid but rather to provide alternatives. MSAs dont hold the responsibilities of the home to teach children and stop them from drinking and going out and hooking up and bringing them back to prayer. The MSA is an association, an organization for Muslim support and dawah, not a Christian group backed by a church hell bent on converting each and every last lost college youth in sight.

    We cant smile that sweet smile, put our arm around their trembling shoulders and slowly shove a bible down their throats like cake to a fat child.

    • Recommendations are embedded in the questions themselves. E.g., if the musalla is a storage closet, recommendation is to clean it up and use it and conceive of it as what it is meant for: a prayer space.

      I was part of one MSA or another for over 10 years, as a high school student, college student, then grad student, so I am very familiar with the variety challenges that MSAs face. Everything goes back to intention. Those MSAs that have a clear understanding of their purpose and mission on campus are the most successful.

    • Z says:

      The point of an MSA is to provide spiritual enrichment to students. However these social aspects you highlight I don’t see as problems. In fact, I argue they are what makes MSA’s special. It creates a community, a family, and a backbone at the most impressionable and pivotal time in a young adults life. These social “dates” are better then members of the muslim community going out with people who don’t have the same cultural or religious backgrounds. The inclusivity of more liberal muslims is not a hinderance at all. In fact it pushes the boundary of thought within the community, and opens discussions on a deeper level of why people do what they do or are the way they are. Religious circles, talks and so forth are important, and they exist. But the social outlet is one of the best qualities of every MSA. Within non student based muslim communities there is a surge of traditional boundedness that retracts from the exploration needed to grow as a person. Coming to college and having the MSA social outlet, with people who grew up under similar backgrounds provides a necessary element to individual growth as well as communal growth. Deen is found within ones self, and if MSA’s provide the same environment that we find at home there is no further growth, or point. We learn from one another, make mistakes with one another, and learn why islam is so important through our social interactions, and the mistakes we make. Also, the social element of MSA’s draws more people from the community. Without that large social basis, MSA’s can loose their draw. I am not saying that having very social MSA’s and loosing the religious learning aspects is good. However I’m saying that it is just as important. A personal opinion, no offense intended.

  2. Abdul says:

    assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

    I speak as a former executive member of an ISOC and someone still regularly involved with my ISOC.

    Many of the points resonate with me and articulate many of the frustrations that I have/hold about ISOCs.

    The problem is that ISOCs/MSAs cannot be the means to raise the thinking and spirituality of others, until those taking part in the ISOCs/MSAs do so FIRST themselves.

    Therefore as it is implicit in the article; IF tomorrow the ISOCs/MSAs were to become organisations that were more than a Muslim flavoured culture club then ISOCs/MSAs would collapse overnight as there would be no one interested in them.

    This is not to say that ISOCs/MSAs do not do any good; for many this halal socialisation easies the pressure to do harm. But you could easily argue that if the spirituality of the Muslims was developing and this was the focus then the pressure to do harm would not be such a problem in the first place. As you can see we start to go around in circles.

    My conclusion on the matter is that if YOU as an individual who sees this problem and wants to do something about it, then you FIRST need to seek Allah’s help and put in effort to come closer to Allah and thus become a light for others as well. Doing this will mean the situation starts to change, we will start to take useful (even if small) steps in the right direction and people will be positively influenced even if by one person to begin with and insha Allah this will only then spread. A group is only made from its individuals, even if one individual goes in the right direction, in deed Allah is the one to put in barakah (blessings)!

  3. S says:

    See all these are problems if you consider MSA to be a masjid/Islamic school replacement. Which I don’t believe it is. To me MSA is a “Muslim flavored social club” which gives people an opportunity to hand out with people of similar values.
    In university where all your other class mates are involved in drinking, partying and clubbing having a Muslim based club is priceless (something people on the outside fail to realize).
    It is an imperfect organization run by imperfect Muslims for imperfect Muslims. But Alhmdulillah my personal university career is a lot better of because if it.

    • C says:

      I think the idea he’s getting at is that these are religious organizations first and foremost and they should be treated as such. It is the responsibility of MSA members to engage in dawah, to be engaged in activism, to keep each other guided on the straight path. There is nothing wrong, if I understand the writer, with some socializing (in the bounds of Islam) as long as it’s not becoming the focus of the organization which a lot of times it is. I’ve gone to Eid banquets where they have women, non-Muslim, dressed scantily, dancing for the audience and having these cultural fashion shows and they have nothing to do with Islam or even being remotely appropriate. So yeah, socialize with each other, hang out, have fun. But remember that these are religious organizations and there’s still a responsibility to be had with that.

    • I agree that “hanging out with people of similar values” is important, but what are Islamic values in the first place? What if Muslims on campus have a limited or only partial understanding of Islamic values? Shouldn’t the MSA play some role in facilitating learning such values, or practicing such values? Being consistent with prayer is an important Islamic value — is the MSA facilitating isha and fajr prayer on the regular? Helping the needy is an important Islamic value — is the MSA facilitating volunteer activity at local soup kitchens?

      If all the MSA strives to do is put in touch people with “similar values,” that is a pretty low bar to set. And, from my experience, it usually just means putting people of a certain ethnicity in touch more than anything.

  4. Ahmad says:

    By Allah’s grace I was blessed with having a “conservative” MSU. We always had some version or another of a halaqa or quran class going on, dawah efforts were on the forefront, always gender separated events, Quran competitions, but the main focus of the group was the prayer. The athan would be given three times a day (zuhr, asr, maghrib) and whether Shia or Sunni we would pray side to side. During my years, it proved amazing. It was what saved me. My MSU taught me fiqh and tajweed, it had spiritual sessions with amazing Sheikhs ( eg.Hassan El Wan ). I am not saying it was perfect, but if you want a model of an MSA to look at and emulate, look at UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union.

  5. F says:

    I am writing as a veteran of an ‘imperfect’ Islamic society of a uk university. Yes, I agree with many of the points raised in the article that we committee members should have done more to promote Islamic values, and believe me that was the intention we started out with. But I also agree with the points made in the comments that even if these societies become more like social clubs, they do serve a purpose of providing Muslim students a place to interact with like minded people away from the pressures of drinking alcohol, sex and drugs and other lifestyle choices which are all too prevalent on University campuses. I remember some Muslim students coming to me and saying that they felt excluded and judged which is why they did not come to the Islamic Student Society events. This is why I think at every campus there should be two societies: a Muslim Society which would provide more social and cultural events and support, and an Islamic Society which would follow all the Islamic norms. Thus all the Muslim students would be catered for. We have to be realistic and realise that there are Muslims who come to University and lose their way and their faith and we need to prevent that by providing support and friendship rather than excluding and judging them.

  6. Immad Ansari says:

    Assalam-u-Alaikum Br. Daniel

    Jazakalah Kheir for this piece of writing. I totally agree with you, and this seems like you looked into my mind. These are the same points that I have thought about and you have put them in a organized manner. I was the president for my MSA as a senior during my Undergrad and I tried to keep the MSA on the right track as I believed it to be. Due to that I got a lot heat from people but I am happy with myself. At the end of the day, I really think it is about the intention and the what people think MSA is there for.

  7. Bilal Ansari says:

    Dear Br. Daniel,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with MSAs. I hope your experience has inspired you to join MSA National and work to bring about a culture of change. Truth is most MSAs are institutionally constituted as either a social club, identity club, or independent affiliated organization. This framework shapes mission and vision and limits intentionality of ‘spiritual enrichment’ which leaves ‘cultural fulfillment’ options. As a chaplain, I respect both and work to provide a healthy medium between both realities.

    To have a group of self identifying Muslims gather in one space to talk to each other can be a spiritually enriching experience. If such conversations bring about deeper understanding and commitment to support each other or good causes. Believe it or not study circles are not a testimony or measure to a spiritually healthy community, especially if aqidah is taught while the communal need is other than creedal theology.

    This article I think is a great conversation starter to a larger conversation about pastoral care of MSAs. Who is the shepherd responsible to God for the flock of MSAs? If the answer is the MSA student leadership than one can not blame the limited social nature of these MSAs. However, if the answer is that this kiffayah is upon trained leaders, such as chaplains, than we are responsible to build the appropriate infrastructure to build such change. MSA West I believe is actively pursuing the latter and I believe will lead the way forward to a healthy middle way between cultural and religious enrichment on our colleges and university campus, with God’s assistance.

  8. Yusuf says:

    After Salah, MSA was and still is a place to find/meet what Allah has written for you. Access to Muslim women maybe in short supply in your life. Going to MSA is part of tying your camel. When you desire something, you go where your desire is.

  9. Samia says:

    It was mostly a waste of time reading this self-righteous, salafi-inspired diatribe. The validity of #6 and the need to be a social justice organization is lost amongst the other 15 judgmental, proselytizing, and veiled homophobic and sexist “signs.”

  10. X says:

    It’d also be appreciated if you considered people other than Wahhabis/Salafis like yourself Muslim. You talk about inclusivity and minorities, but MUSLIM minorities are severely underrepresented and not all those portions of Islam (yes they are equally Muslim as you) feel a lot of this is true. Especially about gender mixing. Just think twice before posting holier than thou messages.

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