February 14, 2005

An American Woman's Jihad

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“As adults we must each own our own beliefs,” said Prof. Fidelma O’Leary, biology, St. Edward’s University, to a packed auditorium in Goldwin Smith on Friday night. Her lecture, “An American Woman’s Jihad,” detailed her spiritual journey as an Irish-American Muslim.

“Islam [is] a development of the faith that I already had… Islam worked for me and I was completely at peace with my religion. [But it was] a long journey filled with jihad [and] a struggle to surrender my will to the will of God,” said O’Leary, who was raised as a strict Catholic in Ireland before converting to Islam and moving to the United States.

“I was raised in a culture where thinking about religion was taboo. I was a teenager, so naturally I rebelled: I started thinking,” she added. She started to have questions about the religious beliefs and practices she was raised on and she began to study religion.

O’Leary became a “person of faith, searching” for an answer. When she came across the Qur’an, she “fully related to it.”

The transition to Islam was one filled with obstacles for O’Leary. She refers to the rift between herself and her family caused by her religious beliefs as her “first jihad and first painful struggle as a Muslim.”

O’Leary was also featured in the 2003 National Geographic documentary film Inside Mecca, which followed three Muslims from three different continents on their Hajj, their pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. A screening of the film preceded the lecture.

When describing the thought process behind making the documentary, O’Leary said, “at first I didn’t want to do it because I thought it would take from my Hajj. Then I realized that they wanted to gently demolish that stereotype of what a Muslim woman is. I was also really tired of [watching] people who weren’t Muslim get on TV and tell me what it meant to be Muslim and I thought, we need to represent ourselves.”

In terms of her views on other religions, O’Leary said, “there’s beauty in all religions. Islam is a very inclusive path. It never claims exclusive access to God or to paradise.”

When asked about her views as a scientist and as a person of faith, O’Leary explained, “I think all knowledge and all wisdom [are] God’s and as scientists we’re just trying to figure it out. I don’t see any contradiction.”

“Inside Mecca” was met with warm responses from students.

“She used what she knew about science and her own inquisitive nature to explore her spiritual side. Well, I think partly because I am a Muslim, I felt chills as I saw millions of Muslims coming together for the common purpose of Hajj in the documentary. It was beautiful,” said Farzana Nuruzzaman ’06.

C.U. administration commented on the importance of events like the one with O’Leary.

“[There is] incredible and woeful ignorance about Islam and the Muslim traditions in this country, and that was ever so apparent in the tragedy of 9/11,” said Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, who officially kicked off Islam Awareness Week.

“We have much to learn in this country and around the world and Islam Awareness Week is an important part to our community,” she added.

O’Leary’s lecture and film screening was sponsored by the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association (MECA).

Archived article by Mary Chu
Sun Staff Writer