ISLAM is finding a niche in the West

By Gwen Shrift
Staff Writer

There are about 7 million Muslims in the United
States, with about 2 million attending the nation's
1,209 mosques. An average 30 percent of those
participating in activities at their mosques are

That he may never forget the presence of God, the
devout Muslim tempers his intentions with a lyrical
word in Arabic, language of the prophet Mohammed.

"Inshallah"- "If God wills" - is no cheap catchphrase.
It describes the whole relationship between the Muslim
and Allah, the supreme being, of whom the Quran says:

"To God belong the East and the West;

and wherever you turn,

there is the face of God.

For God is omnipresent, all-knowing."

Not since the Puritans has God ruled lives the way
Allah still guides the Muslim.

Fourteen centuries after Mohammed, Islam is still cool
water in the desert to the faithful. The words of the
Quran pull strongly to seekers of peace and wisdom,
and all are welcome to drink at the spring.

Yet to some non-Muslims, the faith can be a force that
steals a person's spirit and twists it to evil.

Many were outraged when a 20-year-old Islamic convert
from California was found in Afghanistan earlier this
year, allegedly fighting on the side of terrorists
against his own country.

For many, the face of an Islamic convert comes from
news photos of the dazed-looking, heavily bearded and
filthy John Walker Lindh, who's now known as the
American Taliban.

Yet Islamic converts are more likely to be blacks who
get involved in mosque-sponsored interfaith
discussions or programs to help the needy, according
to a major study of religious groups released last
year by the Hartford Seminary's Institute for
Religious Research.

In other words, the average Islamic convert is more
Jameel Jaabir than John Walker Lindh.

A profession of faith

Jaabir, 28, converted to Islam three years ago, lives
in Morrisville, works as a manager in a local
distribution company, raises his daughter as a Muslim
and is deeply involved in the Masjid As Saffat in
Trenton, his house of worship,.

Apart from the fact that Lindh is in a lot of trouble
with the American government for allegedly joining the
Taliban, his emergence didn't seem to do much for the
public image of those who convert to Islam.

Muslims say conversion to Islam is a matter of what's
in a person's heart and mind. There is no baptism. One
professes the faith and embraces the Islamic deen, or
complete way of life.

The most devout Islamic thinkers believe every human
is born a Muslim, so entering the faith is regarded as
reversion rather than conversion.

Hartford Seminary researchers reported there are about
7 million Muslims in the United States, with about 2
million regularly attending the nation's 1,209

An average 30 percent of those participating in
activities at their mosques are converts, according to
the study, which says the average mosque has 16
conversions a year.

So what is the world to make of the American Taliban?

"This is a unique case where a young man who came to
Islam got into a situation," says Sayyid M. Syeed,
secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North
America. "It became a tragedy that he became famous
because he was found in Afghanistan. ... The most
famous convert in America today, that is globally
recognized and Americans are proud of, is Cassius

Like many who convert to Islam, Clay took an Arabic
name and became Muhammad Ali.

Jaabir, born Corey Little, is still deciding how best
to combine his birth name and his chosen name.

"Some scholars believe you should keep your original
last name," he says.

Yet the Arabic names are evocative of a rich spiritual
tradition: Jameel is one of the 99 attributes of
Allah, and means one who is beautiful on the inside
and acts in a beautiful manner.

Jaabir means "one who consoles the aggrieved." Jaabir
also is deciding on the right Arabic name for Nicole,
his 9-year-old daughter.

This devotion to Islamic roots runs counter to recent
reports that some American citizens born with Arabic
names are changing them to Western ones, often in fear
of discrimination after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Such Westernizing of names is a footnote in the larger
story of the most recent clash between some elements
of Islam and the West.

Much has been made of the Islamic roots of those who
carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, how copies of the
Quran were found among their belongings, how they were
instructed to cry "Allah Akbar!" ("God is great") as
they prepared to slam jetliners into tall buildings.

Mainstream Islam denounced the alleged religious
motivation for the attacks, pointing out the faith is
based on values such as peace and charity. But
historical tensions are unlikely to end anytime soon,
with enormous implications for both the Islamic and
non-Islamic worlds.

In his best-selling volume "What Went Wrong?" (written
before Sept. 11, 2001), scholar Bernard Lewis
concludes that "The worldwide exposure given to the
views and actions of Osama bin Laden and his hosts the
Taliban has provided a new and vivid insight into the
eclipse of what was once the greatest, most advanced,
and most open civilization in human history ... .

"If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their
present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor
for the whole region, and there will be no escape from
a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and
self-pity, poverty and oppression ... .

"If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle
their differences, and join their talents, energies,
and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they
can once again make the Middle East, in modern times
as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major
center of civilization."

In the name of Allah

Muslims submit themselves to the will of God according
to the Quran, which they believe was divinely revealed
to Mohammed, who was born in the year 570 in what is
now Saudi Arabia.

Muslims consider Mohammed the last in a line of
prophets that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus,
regard the Quran as the completion of all holy
scriptures and believe Islam is the one true faith.

Muslims do not worship Mohammed, but the faithful say
or write "peace be upon him" at every mention of his
name and the names of the other prophets. Mohammed is
sometimes called Rasul Allah, which means "messenger
of Allah."

Virtually all Islamic documents, from announcements on
the bulletin board at the local masjid to the opening
verse of the Quran begin with the words: "Bis-millah
hir-Rahman nir Rahim (In the name of God, the
compassionate, the merciful)."

The central creed of Muslims is the belief in one God
and in Mohammed's role as God's true messenger.
Muslims abide by the five pillars of Islam:
acknowledgement of the above-mentioned articles of
faith, daily prayers, giving alms to the needy,
fasting during the month of Ramadan and making a
pilgrimage to Mecca, birthplace of Mohammed.

Besides their belief in one God and in the prophets,
Muslims believe in the books revealed to the prophets
who preceded Mohammed, including the Torah and the
Gospel; in angels, heaven and hell, life after death
and a day of judgment.

Though not all Muslims are Arabs, the Quran and all
Islamic prayers and religious terms are in Arabic.
Muslims say the original text of the Quran has
survived with no revisions or variations. Translations
are regarded as explanations of the Quran's meaning,
rather than the scripture itself. Memorizing all 114
chapters of the Quran is a sign of devotion.

The devout Muslim's day is marked by the call to
prayer, which in Islamic nations puts a stop to all
other activity.

"In the West, the world is still going on around you,"
says Rashidah Khalifa, a student at the College of New
Jersey who volunteers at the Masjid As Saffat. "It's a
blessing to be living in the West, but it forces you
to be conscious of what you're doing."

A new life

Those who convert to Islam accept more than a set of

Islam governs one's conduct, dress and daily schedule.

Jaabir, once preoccupied with hip-hop, now lives his
life by the rhythms of faith.

At prayer times, he quietly withdraws to a room apart
from his usual workspace. On Fridays, the Muslim
counterpart of the Christian sabbath, he leaves work
and drives to the Masjid As Saffat for midday worship.
He makes up his work hours later.

"That's a very minute price to pay for serving Allah,"
he says.

Like other Muslims, Jaabir is governed by Quranic
teachings on proper dress and conduct. Muslims are
expected to "lower their gaze and guard their
modesty," which is why Muslims dress as they do.

So when Jaabir's daughter, Nicole, covers her head
when setting out to Sunday school at the masjid, she's
not claiming second-class status but rather obedience
to the will of God, according to Islamic belief.

For the same reasons, Nicole's dad wears loose
trousers, a shirt that reaches below the knees and a

Jaabir and Nicole are among the first arrivals at the
Masjid As Saffat, a small brick building on a side
street in central Trenton. They're here for prayers
and for Nicole's Sunday school class. Soon, the masjid
is crowded with worshippers and their children.

While most of the women wear full Islamic garb, some
of the younger girls are dressed in jeans and
sweaters. Every woman follows the Quran according to
her culture: Pakistani women wear printed loose cotton
tunics and trousers, Eastern Europeans loose,
long-sleeved, flannel dresses that reach to the ankle.
Every female in the masjid, from first-graders to
grandmothers, wears the head scarf known as a hijab.

Classroom doors are covered with children's artwork.
The crafts tell you the children who study in these
rooms are named Nour, Khaleeq, Afrida, Nusheen, Leema,
Fatima, Amina, Ibrahim and Usama.

Everyone goes downstairs to a large room for assembly.
Men and boys sit on one side, women and girls on the
other. The Sunday school principal asks a little girl
to read in Arabic, then discusses a lesson for the day
- if you help your fellow Muslims when they're in
difficulties, Allah will help you.

The teacher asks the kids for examples of

"A mother going through pregnancy," says one boy.

"When you can't pay the bills," offers a little girl.

Everyone recites the opening chapter of the Quran,
translated here:

"In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful

"All praise belongs to God,

Lord of all worlds,

The Compassionate, the Merciful,

Ruler of Judgment Day.

It is You that we worship,

And to You we appeal for help.

Show us the straight way,

The way of those You have graced,

Not of those on whom is Your wrath,

Nor of those who wander astray."

Nicole goes upstairs and takes her place in a class of
other third-graders taught by Khalifa. The teacher
takes out a set of homemade flash cards, each
depicting one of the 30 characters in the Arabic

Nicole eagerly calls out the names of the letters.
Khalifah drills the students: "Why is this (the
letter) jim (rather than the similar-looking ha or

"Because it's got a dot in the middle," says Nicole.

The teacher discusses how a letter looks different
according to whether it begins, connects or doesn't
connect with another. She teaches them four new Arabic
letters, handing out worksheets printed with examples.
The children practice forming the characters, then
recite chapters of the Quran, known as surahs.

After a break, the class turns to Islamic history and
moral concepts.

Khalifa asks the children what a hypocrite is.

"It's, like, a fake Muslim," says one girl.

"It's someone who pretends to be something they're
not," Khalifa explains. "No back-biting! No talking
about people behind their backs!"

Khalifa asks her students to recite 10 of the 99
attributes of Allah, all they've memorized so far - or
at least some have. A few of the girls have mastered
the list ("Ar-Rahim, the most merciful, Al-Mumin,
guardian of faith, As-Salaam, the source of peace
...") but the lesson needs work.

"Next week, we're going to have a test," Khalifa
announces. "And everybody better know the 10
attributes of Allah. If you don't do well, you're
going to be talking to your parents."

Nicole, a student at M.R. Reiter Elementary School,
loves her Arabic studies.

"I'm just a couple of steps away and I'll be reading
the Quran - I can't wait," she says.

Likewise, her father lives for the rewards of prayer,
for every reminder of Allah.

"This is the right deen, this is the path I'm on," he
says. "Every day, I pray for this knowledge, the
understanding ... Islam is the truth. I didn't know
this before."

Gwen Shrift can be contacted via

e-mail at 


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