Muslim Campus Ritual Stirs Debate on Funding A Muslim ritual called "wudu" is a tradition that involves washing one's hands, face and feet before prayers. In an effort to be sensitive to this practice, a number of colleges and universities have constructed foot baths to accommodate Muslim students. Some argue that the foot baths aren't needed and that they violate separations of religion and state. Zudhi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy explains.

Muslim Campus Ritual Stirs Debate on Funding

Muslim Campus Ritual Stirs Debate on Funding

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A Muslim ritual called "wudu" is a tradition that involves washing one's hands, face and feet before prayers. In an effort to be sensitive to this practice, a number of colleges and universities have constructed foot baths to accommodate Muslim students. Some argue that the foot baths aren't needed and that they violate separations of religion and state. Zudhi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy explains.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we're going to turn to another story involving the lives of Muslims in America today.

It's an issue being debated in some colleges and universities around the country - whether or not to build footbaths. As part of the ritual preparation for prayer, observant Muslims wash, including their feet. In an effort to be sensitive to this practice, and they say to prevent slippery floors from water sloshing under the sink, a number of colleges and universities have constructed footbaths to accommodate the Muslim students. The latest is the University of Michigan, which plans to build two footbaths paid for with student fees. But that outreach has come under fire by some people who worry that Muslims are receiving preferential treatment.

And with us to talk about this is Zuhdi Jasser. He is the chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. And that's a group that supports the separation of religion and state. He joins us now from Phoenix. Welcome, sir. Thanks for speaking with us.

Dr. M. ZUHDI JASSER (Chairman, American Islamic Forum for Democracy): Nice to be with you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And let's start with the basic question, if I may. What is the premise behind, is it, it's Wudu? Wudu?

Dr. JASSER: Yeah, Wudu is the religious ablution, and in many faiths, before you do your prayer or conversation with God, you do a ritualistic ablution where you wash yourself to cleanse yourself. It has a spiritual component, also a practical component so that when you sit to pray to God, you've washed.

And one of the things that's interesting about this demand of putting in foot washing basins is - what people forget is that there is differences in which Muslims are going to demand what. I have done my prayers throughout my life five times a day. And some modern Muslims will tell you that, while you can wash your feet in the morning and then throughout the day you still do your Wudu, but you don't need to fully wash the feet anymore once you wear your socks. So that's one of the things that sometimes we have to be careful how fundamentalist or orthodox their requests are.

MARTIN: And that's a question I wanted to ask you. Is this considered, say, a fundamental requirement? Is it a cultural custom or, as you were indicating, perhaps not? It's something that - there are various interpretations of how this can be observed.

Dr. JASSER: Definitely washing before prayers is a requirement to the vast majority of Muslims - it's definitely part of our faith. But the issue is do you have to take your socks off and wash your feet? And, you know, we've also said that it is pretty inappropriate to do that in a hand-washing sink in the university, that you should do that back at your dorm room or in a chapel at the airport. And you see all of these places trying to accommodate Muslims, and our fear is that this is going to become a competition of accommodations between religions. And it's different for the state to provide us a place to pray or give us our time off when we need it. But to start incurring cost upon the taxpayers and universities, et cetera, for special accommodations, that really gets me concerned about the creeping political (unintelligible) and separation.

MARTIN: Well, the University of Michigan says that the footbaths are a response to safety and maintenance issues, that the students are sloshing water on the floor, somebody could slip and fall. That's a problem. They also say the sinks were being overused and there's a problem with that. They also say other people could use the footbaths; they're not exclusively for Muslims. So what do you say to that?

Dr. JASSER: Well, I say that it's amazing that somebody does something inappropriately that then ends up causing his own un-safety and that becomes a demand that the state has to meet. I mean, in some ways, it would be like if my child decided to run - to walk to the park a mile away in 115-degree heat in Phoenix and then it becomes a demand that I take him there, when in fact he shouldn't go. So you can't create unsafe situations and then say that it becomes a demand for the state to protect us from ourselves. I think they should respect the sink. They shouldn't use them for their feet. They should go back to their dorm room and do their ablution.

And the other thing is I've done my prayers when I went to secular public schools in Wisconsin where I grew up and I never needed a foot washing basin to put in. I was able to accommodate my religious requirements. The time for prayer is a window of time between 12 and three or between four and seven. The fundamentalists believe that you have to pray right at the time that it becomes a time to pray, and then all of a sudden you see like in San Diego, they had a school that changed the whole school schedule in order to accommodate Muslim prayer.

MARTIN: And you think that's going too far?

Dr. JASSER: It's going way too far…

MARTIN: All right. All right.

Dr. JASSER: …because all of a sudden it becomes a competition of religion and the separation of religion and state and you have this increasing…

MARTIN: Okay.

Dr. JASSER: …Islamism.

MARTIN: Dr. Jasser we have to leave it there, and I thank you for your perspective.

Dr. JASSER: Anytime. Thank you.

MARTIN: Zuhdi Jasser is the chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. He joined us from his home in Phoenix. Thanks again.

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