Mahmood Jawaid

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May 07, 2006 The Charleston Gazette

Essays on faith

Islam in American life: Muslims practicing their faith havent had to compromise much to fit in

By Mahmood Jawaid

I WAS in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. While driving down Devon Street, one of the famous business districts, I noticed a magnificent church on the right side of the road. While I was still admiring the magnificence of the church, my wife diverted my attention toward a group of men clad in black suits wearing long beards and felt hats. It was close to sunset on Saturday, and these men of Jewish faith were heading toward a synagogue.

After driving a few blocks, the ethnic mix changed. The street was now bustling with people of Indo-Pakistani origin. The restaurants were crowded. The shops were filled with people busy haggling. It is a typical Indo-Pakistani culture to haggle for prices right down to pennies. It is not as much a matter of saving a few pennies, it is the joy the buyer gets out of negotiating a price and the bragging right that comes with it. I again saw a bunch of men hurrying toward a building. Many of them were clean-shaven. Some of them were wearing short beards, some wearing long beards. Most of them were in regular dress, but some were wearing long shirts. Many had caps on their heads. They were all Muslims. Since it was close to sunset, they were all heading toward a mosque to perform congregational dusk prayer.

Muslims, like others from Third World countries, started coming in droves to the United States in the 1960s. Most of them were either professionals or students. The basic reason for the emigration was economical or educational. However, it was the practice of justice, freedom, equality, tolerance, generosity, hospitality and respect for individuals the basic Islamic values which made them feel at home. It is an admirable characteristic of the United States that it has welcomed people of all faiths and races with open arms. They admire the nondiscriminatory character of the Constitution and the separation of church and government that has done wonders and has shown the world how people of different faiths can live in peace and harmony for the betterment of the whole society.

Prayer time

Since the census does not track religious affiliation, it is hard to know the exact number of Muslims in the United States. It is estimated that their population could range between 7 million and 10 million. They occupy all the strata of life. Some are blue-collar workers, but most are professionals, for example, accountants, doctors, engineers and lawyers. Many of them own businesses such as convenience stores, ethnic grocery stores, laundries and fast-food franchises.

Some are now entering politics. Like their Abrahamic predecessor, wherever they settled, they built mosques. The structure of many mosques includes a minaret and a dome, a typical Islamic architecture. One thing that is missing from the minarets is the prayer calls, called Adhan. Respecting the sensitivity of the neighborhood, the calls are made within the mosque and kept contained within the walls of the mosque. Technology has closed this gap. Adhan clocks are now commonly available which automatically give the call at the scheduled time at home. All you have to do is to select the city you are living in. Wristwatches are also available that can tell the prayer time as well as the direction of Kabah, the cubicle building first built by Prophet Abraham and Prophet Ishmael in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Muslims must face Kabah when worshipping.

Muslims are required to worship five times a day: at dawn, early and late afternoon, dusk and early evening. Although each prayer takes only five minutes, it requires the worshiper to go through the postures of standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting to demonstrate humbleness to God. In each posture, the worshiper recites certain statements to affirm his humbleness.

Since most Americans are unfamiliar with this mode of worship, they may think of it as a slow-motion exercise. It sometimes becomes problematic in public or the workplace to offer prayer. The worshipers, therefore, prefer a secluded place to avoid distraction. The dawn, late-afternoon, dusk and evening prayers do not normally pose any problem. These prayers fall during nonworking hours and can be performed at home or in the mosque. It is the early-afternoon prayer that sometimes poses a challenge. Those who have offices of their own usually manage to offer these prayers in their offices. Those who do not have separate offices either use creative ways to squeeze in these prayers during break, or delay it till they arrive home. Some religious scholars have allowed delaying the prayer in such circumstances, provided it is offered before sunset.

The prayers are preceded by ablution. This requires washing hands up to the elbow, face, and feet and wiping of head. A person unaccustomed to such washing cannot stop wondering, while watching someone making ablution, Why is this guy taking a bath by the sink?Since washing feet in the sink is considered indecent in this culture, it has become common practice to wipe over the socks to avoid offending the unaccustomed observer. The religious edict allows wiping over the socks, provided the person has worn socks after making ablution.

Just as Sunday is a day of worship in Christianity and Saturday in Judaism, Friday is the day for worship in Islam. Muslims are required to attend Friday service in the afternoon. The Holy Quran says: O you who believe, When the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday, hasten earnestly to the remembrance of God, and leave off business. That is best for you, if you but knew. And when the prayer is finished, then may you disperse through the land and seek of the bounty of God and celebrate the praise of God often that you may prosper(62:9-10). The service consists of a speech by the preacher and a congregational prayer and takes only about 30 to 45 minutes. Although it requires some juggling of schedule, most of the Muslims manage to attend the Friday prayer.

Food and cleanliness

The Islamic dietary laws are very similar to the Jewish laws. Muslims are not allowed to eat pork, animals with canine teeth, and birds with talons. The lawful animals and birds must be slaughtered to drain the blood out and the name of God must be taken while slaughtering. The meat from the animals slaughtered in this manner is called zabiha meat. In most of the big cities, zabiha stores are fairly common. In some cities even regular grocery stores stock zabiha meat. Residents of smaller cities either go to farms or to slaughterhouses or make trips to nearby big cities for the zabiha meat. Since the Holy Quran allows the meat of the animals slaughtered by the Christians and Jews in the name of God, kosher meat serves as a good alternative. Since the majority of Americans are Christians, some scholars even allow consumption of the regular meat.

Islam also prohibits the consumption of alcohol or drugs. While Muslims, like others, have no problem getting speeding tickets, they do not worry about getting a DUI citation. They are also good candidates for designated driver. Products containing pork or alcohol are also considered questionable. Do not be surprised if you find someone intently reading the ingredients on a box in the grocery store. He or she is not improving vocabulary. It is just the ingredient check the Muslims go through to make sure the product does not contain pork products or alcohol. They use the same caution when ordering food in the restaurant.

Cleanliness is an important aspect of Muslim life. It encourages the practice of personal hygiene as well as keeping ones surroundings clean and pleasing. Prophet Muhammad has stated that cleanliness accounts for half of the belief and removing a stone from the pathway is a charity. He advised his followers to wear perfume all the time and to avoid food generating offensive odors when going to mosque.

The importance this culture places on cleanliness and hygiene is very conducive for Muslims to follow the Prophets advice. Since ablution is required before each prayer, Muslims end up washing their exposed body parts five times a day. They are also required to clean themselves after using the restroom. Although water is the preferred cleanser, tissue paper is also acceptable. As such you will not find urinals in Mosques, unless required by law. Islamic law also requires taking baths in certain situations. Here again the American habit of taking a shower every day is very comparable to Islamic practices.

The Holy Quran acknowledges that there are some benefits in alcohol and gambling, but the harm far outweighs the benefits. Muslims, while engaging in business or employment, are required to abstain from businesses involving alcohol, gambling or obscenity. As such they generally refrain from working in or buying shares of companies involved in gambling, producing alcohol or publishing obscene magazines. Mutual funds, for example Dow Jones Islamic Fund and Amana Mutual Funds, are now available to cater to Muslim needs. But this is also an area where some have made compromises. There are quite a few Muslims who own convenience stores where beer and lottery tickets are sold.

Money and dress

While Islam strongly encourages making profit from business, it does not allow charging interest on loans. It demands equity in both profit as well as loss. Interest-bearing loans do not share the loss. A majority of Muslims have compromised on this issue and have bought houses on mortgage.

One of the most frequently asked questions posed to the scholars is the permissibility of buying a home on mortgage, but so far they have refused to budge. There are some diehard Muslims who have chosen to live in rented dwellings to avoid mortgage. In the last few years, a number of financial institutions have appeared that do home financing based on the Islamic principle. In such transactions, the financial institutions, instead of lending money to the buyer, share the ownership and the rent of the house with the buyer. The potential homeowner pays monthly installment to buy the share owned by the financial institution. In case of default, the financial institution and the defaulter split the proceeds from the sale of the house based on their share in the house.

Islamic dress code requires Muslim women to cover their whole body, except faces and hands, when venturing outside their home. Muslim women seeking employment opportunities usually end up forgoing this requirement. Some employers, though, have shown acceptance to this dress code. The same dress code prevents girls from participating in games requiring skimpy sportswear. Recently some schools have started allowing sportswear conforming to the Islamic code.

Like others, Muslims are also fun-loving people. They are involved in almost all fun activities. Only bars are off-limits due to the prohibition of alcohol. Their fun is usually family oriented and mostly centers on recreational games, family picnics, social dinners, traveling and going to theaters.

Muslims are active in almost all aspects of American life without sacrificing much on their Islamic obligations. They have made some adjustments out of respect of this culture, but even these adjustments fall within the precept of Islam. The only compromise they have made is in financial matters.

Jawaid is a writer who lives in Dunbar.

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