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Faith and brotherhood: Muslim fraternity growing at University of Toledo

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    Members of Alpha Lambda Mu, the first national Muslim fraternity, from left to right Jameel Saadeh, Mazzin Elsamaloty, Moaaz Alvi, and Hashir Faheem.

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    Ismael Gad, founder of Toledo's Alpha Lambda Mu chapter.

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Ismael Gad, founder of Toledo's Alpha Lambda Mu chapter.

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Ismael Gad, 20, was not always sold on the idea of a Muslim fraternity.

He was skeptical when he first heard about the existence of Alpha Lambda Mu, the nation’s first Muslim-interest fraternity, from its founder Ali Mahmoud at the American Learning Institute for Muslims’ summer program. But after extensive discussions with its founder and co-founder, Bilal Ayub, Mr. Gad fell in love with the idea.

By the time he returned to Toledo, he’d resolved to found a chapter at his own university.

“We needed something like ALM [because] there wasn’t really a sense of tight-knit brotherhood where brothers could get together on a daily basis,” Mr. Gad said. “We could say who we are without feeling like we need to trade off being Muslim for being American. We can be halal Americans.”

The original Alpha Lambda Mu was founded on Feb. 12, 2013, at the University of Texas at Dallas. Since then, it has grown to seven chapters nationwide, from the Beta chapter at the University of California, San Diego to the Gamma chapter at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The University of Toledo’s ALM colony officially received the fifth charter, the Eta chapter, on Sept. 15 following a year-long trial period in which the group proved its long-term sustainability by hosting social events and raising $2,000. The seven original members have since become 19, with aims to grow to 30 this school year.

Getting here wasn’t easy. When pitching the idea to his friends, Mr. Gad encountered the same skepticism he’d once expressed. Current vice-president Mazzin Elsamaloty, 21, recalled thinking the idea of mixing faith and Greek life was an oxymoron. Whereas college fraternities are often seen as encouraging drinking and casual sex, Islam prohibits both. Eventually, though, he figured there was “nothing to lose” in attempting it.

Community reactions varied. Former ALM treasurer Jamal Shaheen said some thought it “sounded preposterous.” Older Muslims at local mosques, Mr. Elsamaloty recalled, initially dismissed the fraternity “almost as a glorified youth group.”

But according to Moazz Alvi, 24, many people unfamiliar with fraternity culture kept an open mind. And once ALM began to do volunteer work, it legitimized itself as a trustworthy group that people could rely on, Mr. Elsamaloty said.

While the Muslim-interest fraternity is expected to soon be officially approved by the University of Toledo’s inter-fraternity council, ALM also represents a challenge to traditional notions of Greek life. Its members don’t drink alcohol or throw mixed-gender parties. Its name — Alpha Lamba Mu — employs Greek letters to spell a famous verse in the Quran: “Alif Lam Meem.”

“We’re paving our own way,” Mr. Gad said. “We don’t try to make other fraternities pave the way for us.”

While American universities are accustomed to hosting ethnic-based fraternities, honor societies, and other groups dedicated to specific social doctrines, the arrival of Alpha Lambda Mu on the UT campus has only furthered the school’s diversity.

“We have a strong commitment to inclusion, and this is another opportunity for us to show that,” said Phillip Cockrell, the university’s interim vice president for student affairs. “Because it's a fraternity, a brotherhood, [being on campus] gives them an opportunity to promote their values as it relates to being Muslim.

“University president Dr. [Sharon] Gaber is very committed to making sure our campus is very diverse.”

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Members of Alpha Lambda Mu, the first national Muslim fraternity, from left to right Jameel Saadeh, Mazzin Elsamaloty, Moaaz Alvi, and Hashir Faheem.

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Mr. Cockrell said UT currently has about 30 Greek organizations on campus, which represent about 10 percent of the student population, or 1,500 people. He expects Alpha Lambda Mu to receive its final Inter-fraternity Council seal of approval within two weeks and said that like the black, Latino, and white Greek houses at UT, ALM has met all of the requirements, with an added twist.

“One way [the university shows] inclusiveness is to give our students an outlet to assemble based on their religious background, as it relates to their particular faith,” he said.

In this case that faith is providing the brotherhood a moral compass. Fraternity rushing, notorious for its brutal hazing, takes on a gentler character at ALM. Jameel Saadeh, 19, recalled it being “a really fun experience.” Monday featured an informational session outlining ALM’s activities, while Tuesday’s game night allowed everyone to get to know each other. On Wednesday, the group played basketball at a local mosque, and on Thursday the current brothers decided which pledges made the cut.

The decisive factor, according to Mr. Elsamaloty, was wanting “to become better” in accordance with Islamic ideals of character. Anyone with that ambition could join — Muslim or non-Muslim.

“We want people that want to improve themselves spiritually, intellectually, socially, [and] creatively,” he said. “We don’t want to deal with average; we want to deal with greatness.”

The union of that general accessibility with an “intrinsic exclusivity” distinguishes the young ALM from what has been the staple of Muslim life on-campus for nearly 40 years: the Muslim Students Association. Whereas ALM’s restricted membership allows it to to demand greater accountability from its members, the MSA’s looser structure of voluntary participation eschews such a disciplined approach.

And while the MSA focuses on community service, the ALM prioritizes strengthening its member’s moral character. Both approaches, external and internal, are “very needed on campus,” said Mr. Elsamaloty.

Not that the dichotomy is a strict one. The two organizations have hosted joint events like the annual ALM-MSA picnic, while both the previous MSA president and the upcoming one, Mr. Shaheen, are ALM members. And since developing its members as individuals also means developing them “as leaders who serve the community,” said Mr. Gad, ALM has involved itself in local initiatives, from hosting a car smash to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network to tutoring Syrian refugees.

Ultimately, though, the fraternity is about brotherhood, even among people with divergent perspectives. Mr. Gad noted that ALM’s racial and ethnic diversity has translated to varied cultural and religious understandings of Islam, which means “sometimes we have to be very tolerant of one another.”

To help new and older members draw closer, ALM instituted a Big Sibling-Little Sibling program and holds a retreat at the end of each semester at locations like the Silver Lake Sand Dunes in Michigan and the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. To Mr. Saadeh, the retreat is “the closest time with your brothers in the fraternity”— it’s where he first met Mr. Albi and discovered that they shared Ismael as a Big Sib, hence why they now call themselves “twins.”

Mr. Elsamaloty shares the sentiment.

“The best advice I ever got going to college was from my mom,” said Mr. Elsamaloty. “She said, ‘surround yourself with good people.’ And honestly, this is the best group of guys I could have ever chosen.”

Contact Ahmed Elbenni at aelbenni@theblade.com or 419-724-6194.

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