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Faiza Masood

College: Hunter College
Awards: Marshall Scholarship, 2017

Learning What We Don't Know About Islamic Law

Born and raised in Queens, Faiza Masood learned that Islamic law (Sharia) was flexible enough to fit widely varying social and historical contexts. "That's in sharp contrast to what I knew from Western media, which presents Sharia as strict, archaic and the total opposite of what modern society looks like."

Masood, who graduates from Hunter College this year, with a 2017 Marshall Scholarship to the United Kingdom, offers an example.

The Quran says women should dress modestly. Masood wears a hijab, or headscarf. While studying Arabic in Jordan with a U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship, she saw that most women also wear a black cloak, or abaya, although some paired the hijab with a T-shirt and jeans, making it seem "more of a cultural norm than a religious imperative."

But when she wore an abaya in Morocco, where she studied Arabic with a State Department Critical Language Scholarship, she was the most conservatively dressed student. Many Moroccan women who are practicing Muslims do not wear even a hijab.

And in Pakistan, her parents' homeland, women may wear a hijab outdoors. Indoors, they reject what elsewhere is the norm of covering their heads if men who are not family members are present. "At a wedding, I was the only one of my family wearing a hijab."

Such diversity in religious practice "undermines the assumption that Islamic law is monolithic."

Masood will study at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London. Over two years, she intends to earn master's degrees in Islamic studies and Islamic law.

Her first focus is the sources of law: the Quran; the Hadith, or teachings of the Prophet Mohammad; Qiyas, or analogical reasoning by Islamic scholars; and Ijm'a, consensus or scholarly agreements. As for the law, Muslims - more than a fifth of Earth's population - have no common rulebook, and law varies by sect, region and time.

Take the Quran's prohibition of alcohol. Can a Muslim use the cold medication NyQuil, which is 10 percent alcohol? By analogy, Muslims shouldn't use marijuana, but what about medical marijuana for patients facing chemotherapy or chronic pain?

Masood envisions earning a Ph.D. and perhaps teaching at a public college such as Hunter, whose professors helped shape her worldview. Bert Breiner and Barbara Sproul offered insight into other religions, and Christopher Stone and Alexander Elinson explained the nuances of Arabic words.