Elliott Bazzano, Ph.D. (photo courtesy of Le Moyne College)

Elliott Bazzano, Ph.D. was raised in an agnostic household and developed a scholarly and personal interest in Islam and the comparative study of religion when he was in high school and college. Today, as an associate professor of religious studies at Le Moyne College, Bazzano feels an affinity for the kinds of social and existential questions that today’s undergraduate students are asking.

Bazzano teaches courses on Islam and comparative religion. He recognizes that we all have a sense of what “religion” or “spirituality” mean, but that if we try to define either term, we’ll quickly realize how many definitions exist. Bazzano said, “The same goes for particular religions, such as Islam, which billions of Muslims over the past 1,400 years understand differently. By studying religion, therefore, we can study the deepest questions that humans ask about why we are here and how we relate to one another.”

In his classroom, Bazzano works to ”guide his students through the plethora of ways that people around the world have thought about life’s big questions.” Because he knows his courses on Islam are among the only formal opportunities that students will have to delve into religion, he highlights the ways that studying religion applies to all of our lives, whether we consider ourselves religious or not.

When it comes to the value of a well-rounded, liberal arts education, Bazzano is a “true believer.” He sees religion classes as a quintessential part of that education. He screens films and documentaries, as well as stand-up comics on YouTube in his classes. He and his students read fiction, personal narratives and religious texts. They debate politics, culture and the meaning of life. Bazzano recalled once seeing a church sign that read, “The place you come to have your answers questioned”; he strives to frame his courses in a similar fashion. He wants his classroom to be “a space for discovering and curiosity, rather than something prescriptive that students might assume before setting foot in their required religion course.”

Bazzano continued, “The longer I teach, however, the more I focus on trying to cultivate the classroom as an antidote to the dark world we live in, not because religion is inherently good, but because it connects humans in meaningful ways. Even when my ‘dad jokes’ are met with sneers and facepalms (and occasional laughter), I find that students are generally eager and grateful for a space to explore uncertainty and to dialogue with their peers about big questions.”

The work that is being done to meet the spiritual needs of Muslim students across the Le Moyne campus goes well beyond the classroom, of course. Muslim students, faculty and staff are invited to participate in Jumu’ah Prayer (a time for community-building and reflection) with Imam Muris Neimarlija on Fridays throughout the semester. In addition, the College’s Panasci Family Chapel has a Prayer and Reflection Room that provides a quiet prayer space for Muslim members of the Le Moyne community. The room includes the Qur’an, a compass, and prayer rugs for members to use during worship.

The College honors sacred Muslim holidays, including Ramadan, a month of prayer and fasting in the Muslim community that honors the first revelations to the Prophet Muhammad. During Ramadan, the Muslim Student Association traditionally invites different student groups from across campus to join them for an Iftar dinner. This meal, meant to break the daily fast lasting from dawn to sunset during Ramadan, is held every day at sunset. In addition, there are a variety of foods available for a late-night snack and a pre-dawn breakfast. At the conclusion of Ramadan, the College marks Eid al-Fitr, the “Festival of Breaking the Fast.”

“The College is continuing to grow its outreach to students of all faiths in order to enrich our entire campus community,” said Interim Director of Campus Ministry, Rev. Jason Downer, S.J. “It is important to know that none of these initiatives are static and many of them are student-led, which is wonderful.”

By Elliott Bazzano, Ph.D., Department of Religious Studies and Molly McCarthy, Office of Communications, Le Moyne College