On a recent Friday afternoon as the last class lets out and announcements blare across noisy hallways, room GW4 at Nottingham High School sheltered a quiet, focused group of students.
They gather there at 2:40 p.m. once a week for Jumah, Friday Muslim prayers. More often than not, the service is led by one of their own, Nottingham senior Shonnan Usman.
On a recent Friday, he told 20 or so students seated on prayer rugs that having Jumah at Nottingham is a blessing to them.
“How many other schools in this area offer the Friday prayer to us? Not many,” Usman said. That’s a safe bet.
At big, diverse Nottingham, where students from around the world are classmates with native Syracusans, the advent of Friday prayer last school year caused not a ripple, said Usman, who pretty much founded Jumah at Nottingham.
Usman is a Syracuse native whose parents came from Indonesia, and Islam is his family’s faith. Usman, who has a younger brother and an older sister, didn’t embrace the religion until his father’s unexpected death during his freshman year. Learning about Islam was a comfort to him and his little brother in their grief, he said.
Last year, when a fellow student came to Usman to say she’d written a proposal, he was deeply involved in Islam. Student Asmae Aitnajim asked Principal David Maynard if the school could provide a prayer room for Muslim students, because they pray five times a day and had nowhere specific to go.
“And she told me that she wrote that in the proposal and then, I was like, wow, I was impressed, and I was inspired to think like, what else can we do for this Muslim community?” Usman said.
He came back to Aitnajim a couple of days later to ask why not start a Muslim student association? They wrote a proposal for that as well. Jumah followed.
“Like Christians going to church on Sunday, Muslims will go to the mosque on Friday. And I was thinking, is there any way we can bring this Friday prayer to school because the Friday prayer in the mosque is held during our classes so it would be hard for a lot of kids to miss class,” Usman said.
The principal agreed to the association, a prayer room and Friday prayers, but only after class was over.
Barrie Gewanter, director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she is unfamiliar with the details of how Nottingham is handling the Muslim students’ requests, but on the face of it, what the school is doing sounds fine. Under the First Amendment, the government needs to make reasonable accommodations for religious practices, she said.
Prayer in school is not OK under the constitution if it is endorsed or required by the school, she said. If an individual student or a group of students want to pray, that needs to be initiated by the students, not the school, she said.
The Muslim Student Association held a number of events its first year, such as Islamic Awareness Week, a breast cancer awareness campaign and family night for association members. Usman designed a Nottingham MSA T-shirt. Flyers for Jumah dot the school walls.
Usman would like to see more Muslim students make it to Friday prayer.
At a recent Jumah service, he asked students how can we spend so much time on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook and so little time on prayer? He urged them all to consider how to bring their friends along next time.
“We should know that Jumah is more important than whatever we could be doing,” Usman said.
Longer term, Usman is thinking about maybe becoming a Muslim chaplain or becoming a professor who teaches about Islam.
“My career goal is like to be like a continuous activist and advocate for the Muslim community,” he said.
By Maureen Nolan, The Post-Standard
Contact Maureen Nolan at firstname.lastname@example.org