Saluting NCAS’ Class of 2017: Madani Sheikh

Senior English major and budding author will enter RU-N's MFA in Creative Writing Program in the fall.

Madani Sheikh remembers when he first got the writing bug. He was a sophomore at McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, N.J., taking an AP writing composition course. He immediately fell in love with wordplay and writing.

“I had a great teacher whom I still keep in touch with,” says Sheikh. “He gave me not only a chunk of his library but the courage to say I actually like English and literature, and that this is what I want to do with my career, early on.”

The only child of a Pakistani father and Dominican mother, Sheikh arrived at Rutgers University–Newark in 2014 and entered the Honors College with enough AP credits to finish early. Though he considered being a pre-med major and took a year’s worth of science courses, he ultimately decided to follow his heart and pursue English, with a minor in creative writing.

It appears he made the right choice.

During his three years at RU-N, Sheikh received the Rachel Hadas Scholarship, given to a full-time NCAS undergraduate majoring in English or Classical and Modern Languages or Humanities who demonstrates a love of literature and intellectual curiosity. He added two other prizes: the English Department’s the Madison C. Bates award and the Toni Cade Bambara Endowed Scholarship.

He also received an FASN Dean's Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship, which he used to complete his Honors College senior thesis, a collection of three short stories depicting Muslim life in America. The project involved months of research and interviews in N.J. and New York City. He used his manuscript to get accepted to RU-N’s renowned MFA program for fiction, which he’ll start in the fall.

Professor John Keene, an acclaimed author who chairs RU-N’s Department of African American and African Studies, served as Sheikh’s thesis advisor.

“He believed in me and encouraged me to apply for both the Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship and the MFA program,” says Sheikh. “He’s been an invaluable mentor, giving me guidance and big boosts of confidence right when I’ve needed them.”

When Sheikh is not writing, he’s attending literary events such as the Writers at Newark Reading Series and many off-campus gatherings. He’s also served on the board, and this year became Vice President, of the Muslim Students Association.

Through his work with that group, Sheikh has performed community service and has acted as a liaison between Muslim students and campus administrators.

“I have really appreciated the generosity of the many deans and provosts who have taken the time to talk with us when we have concerns,” says Sheikh. “It has meant a lot.”

As he moves forward and continues to work on his craft, Sheikh will be inspired not only by Keene and other authors he’s met at RU-N but also by Sufi poetry, which his father first exposed him to in middle school.

For Sheikh, the mysticism of this special brand of poetry has been transformative, helping him look inward and get to the essence of Islam: moving beyond simply following its rules and attempting to act with love and sincerity in everything he does.

Naturally, this has seeped into his writing.

“Sufi poets have given me the language to express what I’ve felt inside all along,” says Sheikh. “Coming from a family of Catholics and Muslims, I wanted to create a composite so as not to divide myself and my family, to create a holistic view of the world that unifies rather than divides us. The Sufi poets’ metaphors and imagery and spirit have really affected my work. It’s been so significant to me.”

That sense of unity also is what he loves most about RU-N.

The last time he saw it on display was shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when the entire campus—undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and administrators, including Chancellor Nancy Cantor—came together for a solidarity rally in opposition to President-elect Trump’s policies toward immigrants and other groups.

“It demonstrated the kind of campus we are,” says Sheikh. “I mean, I’ve always been proud to be part of this campus, but I was especially proud that day.”