In the courtyard of the mosque on Walnut Street, a weathered black crescent is stamped into the sun-bleached concrete. The crescent encircles an arrow reaching east toward Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. The symbol reflects the Mosque of Nasreen’s character: simple beauty and devotion.
Geometric shapes dominate the mosque’s soft white interior, giving the impression of a papier-mâché finish. Soft arcs and bends draw together to form the ceiling. A bees’ nest of cubbies holds shoes and other belongings, surrendered by their owners before they proceeded onto the scarlet, floral carpet. Besides a few bookshelves, folding chairs and a seldom-used television, the room is empty.
Beyond rectangular sunbeams projecting from window to floor, Naiyerah Kolkailah prays.
She tries to visit the mosque at least a few times a week. Between her faith and her studies, there isn’t room for much else in the biological sciences graduate student’s schedule.
The San Luis Obispo native dresses modestly. Her whole body is covered, but her personality shines through a big white smile, illuminating her face under the hijab. She displays a gentle disposition, sprinkling her syntax with “yes” and “okay” which give the impression of a patient teacher.
Perhaps that patience comes from her parents, who emigrated from Egypt more than 30 years ago to complete their graduate degrees. Her father, Faysal Kolkailah, has taught aerospace engineering at Cal Poly since 1984. His career kept him busy, but he was always supportive. It was her mother who instilled daily Islamic teachings and Arabic comprehension in Kolkailah’s life.
In the Kolkailah household, a critical understanding of the meaning behind Islamic rituals is as valuable as the rituals themselves.
“A lot of times, when parents raise their kids without an explanation — ‘just because I said so’ and ‘because I expect it’ — then in that sense you don’t end up embracing that as your own way of life,” Kolkailah said. “I think that was something very special. I’m proud of being a Muslim, and when I would have to explain the way I dress and why I do it, I was proud of it.”
Kolkailah’s family and faith made adolescence as a minority in San Luis Obispo much more manageable. She was able to develop a strong sense of self-identity, compounded by her religion.
“In general, even in a lot of other places where you don’t have a social network that supports that type of lifestyle, you end up letting it go,” she said.
Like her parents, Kolkailah holds multiple degrees. She carries an undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Cal Poly and a degree in Islamic studies from the Qatar Foundation in Qatar, where she memorized the entire Qur’an (that’s 604 pages, for those of you counting).
Upon her return from Qatar in 2011, Kolkailah spread her knowledge by teaching members of the Muslim community here in San Luis Obispo.
“I came back here and I started teaching the kids and women in the community Arabic and Islamic studies and Qur’an,” she said. “We had a Sunday school and a youth program and we had a camp last summer, just kind of bringing back whatever I gained from overseas to the community as much as I can.”
Her familiarity with San Luis Obispo and expansive knowledge of the Muslim faith earned Kolkailah the position of president of the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo County. In this position, she helps run social religious events in the community and facilitates interfaith dialogue.
To outsiders, Islam is often perceived as a faith that values a patriarchal structure — it carries the stigma of a boys’ club. But Kolkailah said San Luis Obispo’s Muslim community has been supportive of her role.
“In this community it’s different,” she said. “We haven’t really had that. We haven’t really had misogyny or men dominating in a way that doesn’t allow women to be involved.”
The Mosque of Nasreen caters to a relatively small Muslim community of about 50 families. The tight-knit group includes members of both Sunni and Shi’a sects.
Biomedical engineering senior and Muslim Student Association President Munir Eltal said he’s proud his community elected a woman to a leadership position.
“No one would question her,” Eltal said. “What she does for this community is far and above from what I can see happening with other people in the same role.”
He grinned: “It’s great, too, because people come and ask me, ‘So in Islam can women be leaders?’ I can say, ‘Well our president here is.’ That really helps.”
Eltal and Kolkailah were quick to emphasize that despite common perceptions, Islam’s roots are not misogynistic.
English and ethnic studies junior Mehra Gharibian acts as student representative of the Office of Diversity, president of Students for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, president of the Arab Music Ensemble and vice president of Poly Persians.
Gharibian expanded on the misplaced perception of women in Islam, saying oppression of women in the Middle East comes from the cultures’ reactions to colonization and political turbulence in the region.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily inherent in the culture,” he said. “I am that culture. I know what it is. It’s more of a circumstantial thing.”
Kolkailah pointed to the first and final word of the Muslim faith, the Qur’an. She said the text emphasizes a cooperative, harmonious relationship between genders.
“That’s why the idea of understanding how you derive rulings from our source text is very critical,” she said. “You can misuse and manipulate texts in whatever way you want.”
As a Muslim, Kolkailah takes responsibility for dispelling the misconceptions about Islam among members of San Luis Obispo’s relatively homogeneous community. She’s fulfilled this role by speaking at Cal Poly, Cuesta College and worship centers across San Luis Obispo to encourage a transparent interfaith discussion.
“I feel like that type of work makes a difference, and it’s not even doing much,” Kolkailah said. “It’s just being present and showing that Muslims, underneath the differences, are human beings who are going about days trying to be successful and have peaceful friendships and interactions with people.”
To help unravel misconceptions of Islam, the Mosque of Nasreen will host an open house on May 16 for anyone interested.
A previous version of this article said the Mosque of Nasreen open house is on May 30. It is in fact on May 16.