Moving beyond the mosque: As Ramadan approaches, many Muslims seek to make inroads into their communities
The Miami Herald, Nov. 4, 2002
BY DONNA GEHRKE-WHITE
Many of the nation’s approximately 7 million Muslims will use the month of fasting and spiritual renewal — which begins Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the sighting of a crescent moon — to continue their quest to make inroads into the mainstream, from helping the homeless to working with Christians and Jews to promote peace. It’s a mission begun after Sept. 11 and reflects a new strategic thinking among many Muslim leaders.
‘The key to Muslims’ future in America is the integration of Muslims into the mainstream of America,” says Mohammad Javed Qureshi, a founder of the Sunrise mosque, Islamic Foundation of South Florida, and a board member of the Florida chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamic advocacy group.
”For the longest time Muslims might have felt that if they integrated into the mainstream of America they would be compromising their religious beliefs,” he added. “We are finding out that is not the case.”
Qureshi, for example, helped plan Sunday’s Picnic for Peace at TY Park in Hollywood, an outing sponsored by Jews and Muslims for Peace, a Broward group that started up after 9/11.
The new activism is carrying over into Islamic schools. Since Sept. 11, students and staff at Nur Ul-Islam Academy in Cooper City have visited homeless shelters, fed the poor, and donated blood to the American Red Cross, says Kem Hussain, president of the school, which runs from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Nationwide, Muslims are getting more involved in their communities, says Claas Ehlers, a director at the New Jersey-based National Interfaith Hospitality Network, a nonprofit that helps religious groups find ways to help the homeless, including housing them in their unused buildings at night.
Since 9/11, Muslims have joined 18 Interfaith Hospitality networks around the country, up from one before that date. In Phoenix, a group of Muslims is planning to share food with the homeless during Ramadan.
”A Muslim woman in Miramar is very interested in starting something in South Florida,” Ehlers said.
Many Muslims also have been touched by how other Americans have reached out to them — including the Cooper City fire chief and police chief who have stopped by to make sure the Nur Ul-Islam Academy is safe from harassment, Hussain added.
”People realize that we aren’t terrorists,” says Sumayyah Shah, 12, a seventh-grader at Salah Tawfik Elementary School in Sunrise, whose students are collecting money and toys for the needy.
”We would like to teach our children to be on the giving side,” says Qureshi, a school board member.
To Sumayyah, it’s a relief that other Americans are no longer staring at her hijab — the required scarf that covers her head — like they did after the terrorist attacks.
”Actually, people have been more understanding; they’ve been asking more questions,” she says.
This dialogue is carrying over into schools, public forums and into the mosques themselves.
”What is happening is there is a great deal of thirst within the United States to know about Islam,” said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the author of the newly published, The Heart of Islam ($22.95, HarperSan Francisco).
Hussain, president of the Cooper City academy and teacher of a religion class at Florida International University, says his college students have grown curious about the religion.
Others are attending services at various mosques.
Since 9/11, attendance at Sunrise’s Islamic Foundation mosque is up about 25 percent, estimates Qureshi. The new members include a few converts as well as Muslims transferred from other cities and those returning to their spiritual roots.
Patricia Salahuddin, an English teacher at the Design and Architecture Senior High School in Miami, says she has seen more people attending the Masjid Al-Ansar mosque in Liberty City, “especially after 9/11.”
There are about 30 mosques in tri-county South Florida, with most in Miami-Dade and Broward, says Mohammad S. Shakir, a Muslim and executive director of the Miami-Dade County’s Asian-American Advisory Board.
Muslims will observe Ramadan for a month with prayers and Koran recitations while those who are physically able are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset.
”It is a time for great self-discipline and the practice of the virtues of patience and persistence in hardship for the sake of God,” Nasr writes. “It is also a time to develop greater compassion toward the needy and to realize what it means to suffer from hunger.”
”This is the month of absolute peace and goodwill. This is when you really feel the great wonders, the great blessings of God,” said Jamal Hack of Miami Lakes, a founding member of the Nur Ul-Islam mosque, which has grown to 300 to 400 worshipers praying at Friday services.
Still, this Ramadan will have reminders of past troubles. One of the most apparent: Three major Muslim nonprofit groups — including the nation’s largest Islamic charity, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation — were raided last December because government officials feared donations were going to terrorists. The other two charities with frozen assets are in Illinois: Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation, whose leader, B. Enaam M. Arnaout, was indicted last month.
”It’s been a difficult year for the Arab-American and Islamic community, particularly in regards to giving to philanthropic causes,” said Khalil Jahshan, executive vice president of American Arab Anti-Discrimination Community in Washington.
The three charities are still closed and people are confused over where to give at a time of the year when giving — called zakah — is compulsory, Jahshan says.
”People are worried over the legal implications of giving to charities that remain open or they are confused where to give,” he said.
Nonetheless, Muslims are giving, especially during Ramadan. Nader Khan, president of the Cooper City mosque, which is made up of many West Indians, predicts his mosque will see about $30,000 to $40,000 in extra donations during Ramadan.
MONEY FOR TOYS
At Sunrise’s Salah Tawfik school, seventh-grader Ramey Alfarra, 12, is collecting money to buy toys.
Other Muslims are continuing to educate Americans about their faith — a movement that quells anger toward American Muslims, says CAIR’s national director, Ibrahim Hooper, in Washington.
Hooper was concerned there might be trouble when the media reported that the chief sniper suspect, John Allen Muhammad, 41, had converted to Islam.
But he says he hasn’t seen any backlash.
”I think it is pretty clear he was acting alone on his own deranged ideas,” Hooper says. “People are becoming a little bit more aware.”