Reflections of an American Muslim

Written by Dr. Shahid Athar   

During the early days of Islam, Muslims were so weak that they had to perform the prescribed prayer inside their house for the fear of the persecution that they would receive if they identified themselves as Muslims. It was during those days that Ibn Masud, one of the Companions, was brave enough and wanted to recite the Quran near the Kabah. The Messenger of God (PBUH) had warned him that he might get beaten up but he went anyway and recited the Quran to the unbelievers who were initially stunned by listening to the recitation of the Quran. At the end, the disbelievers realized what he was doing and became angry and started to beat him. When he retumed to the Prophet, the Prophet said, "Did I not wam you before?" He replied, "I will be more than happy to go back and do the same thing even if I get beaten up again."

That was the strength of the beliefs of Muslims those days, during that period of weakness of Islam, The Messenger did pray to God to grant Muslims a strong leader among the unbelievers and he prayed specifically for two of the them; one was Umar and the other was Abu Jahl.

Since Abu Jahl's fate was sealed as an unbeliever, Umar was selected who, being one of the strong leaders of the committee, was very powerful. Now once Umar became a Muslim, he declared that now that now that he was a Muslim, Muslims do not have to perform their prescribed prayers inside their house. They can come out and perform the prescribed prayer in congregation and he would stop anyone who opposed them.

It appears that the attack that the media and other enemies of Islam have launched against Muslims by calling them terrorists, hijackers, backward, fanatics, fundamentalists, etc., has put many Muslims in a defensive position. Some of these people are unable to identify themselves as Muslims or with Muslim causes. They may be good in practicing Islam individually in their homes, but not strong enough to do so collectively in public.

There was a Muslim in our community who seemed to be a tiger in the mosque, but when I asked his fellow worker, who is a non-Muslim, how this person was doing,, his fellow worker, who is a patient of mine, was surprised to learn this tiger was a Muslim because he had never identified himself as a Muslim and each time the talk on Islam would come in the office cafeteria, he would keep quiet for the fear of being identified as a Muslim. It is happening to some of our children also who do not wish to be ridiculed as Muslim when they identify themselves in the schools. So Islam, in the USA has become a religion which is being preached from minarets, being taught in Sunday schools, being shown in Islamic convention bazaars, and in Islamic magazines, but the Muslim presence which is equal to or more than Jews is hardly seen in main stream public life.

But thank God, the situation has much improved since I came to this country a quarter of a century ago Non-Muslim institutions are becoming sensitive and aware of the needs of Muslims. There was a time, many years ago, when Muslim meals were not available in air flight by airlines and when one would ask the question "why," the airline would say "since their is no demand." Now, when I call for reservations, I say, "Do you have a Muslim or kosher meal?"and many airlines say, "We have both, which one would you prefer."

Again, this is due to the fact that we are becoming more bold and able to identify ourselves as Muslims. More Muslim women are wearing the modest dress. More Muslim young men are growing beards. Sometimes Muslims are walking around in public places with their traditional dress and caps.

I will give you some practical examples from my own personal experience. In New York at a hotel where I was staying, I ordered a plain omelet for breakfast. The American waitress looked at me and said, "Would you like to order something else as this has ham and I am sure you are a Muslim. I know Muslims don't eat pork or ham." I was very pleased with her and I thanked God for making me look like a Muslim.

I received an invitation to attend an Interfaith conference which was basically run by Jews and Christians. I write back to that organization which was the Indiana Commission for Interreligious Equality, saying that I could not attend this conference since they did not have a Muslim speaker or a topic on Islam. They realized their mistake and wrote me, saying, "Yes, we would like to have Muslim participation and would like Muslims to join the board of IICHE." The same Jewish-Christian conference has now become Jewish-Christian-Muslim conference.

Recently I had the experience of organizing Friday prescribed congregational prayer in a non-Muslim convention which I would like to share. When there is a Muslim convention, we should have our own rules and prayer room and prayer times, but it had never occurred to me in the past that this could be done in a non-Muslim medical convention. So when I registered for this convention of internal medicine specialists, 1,200 of them in New Orleans, the first thing which struck me was that on Friday, there was only a one hour lunch break which was not enough time to go to any mosque in the city and get back in time to start the meeting. I thought that perhaps I should just perform the Friday prescribed prayer by myself in my room.

Then it occurred to me that maybe there were other Muslim physicians and that we could organize a Friday congregational prescribed prayer in this hotel. I picked up the phone and called the manager of the hotel and said that I was a Muslim. I said that there were other Muslim doctors attending this convention and we would like to offer a Friday prescribed congregational prayer which is done at 1o'clock and we would like to have a room to do so. To my pleasant surprise, he said, "Yes, we would love to do it for you. Just tell us how many people are coming and what are your needs." So I went through the names of registered physicians and found that there were thirty-five Muslim physicians from all over the country who had come to attend this particular convention. I told the assistant manager that we had about thirty-five people and we did not need any furniture, to just put plain white sheets on the floor and that is all we need and he agreed to do that.

Then the job was how to find these physicians and give them the message. I did three things: 1) I made up a flyer of the time and room location of this and asked the bell captain to put in the rooms of these physicians, 2) 1 put a message on the notice board of the convention and 3) 1 had one of the speakers announce before starting the session Friday morning for those Muslim physicians who planned to perform the Friday congregational prescribed prayer at I o'clock to go to such and such room.

This announcement as well as the flyer going to the room was taken with a pleasant surprise by all the Muslim physicians. Ninety percent of them came for the Friday prayer. We shortened the sermon and performed the Friday prayer along with afternoon prayer afterwards in congregation. I felt very good about it and all of the Muslim physicians thanked me and I thanked God. This shows an example that if you have a will to do certain things, God will find a way to help you. I sent a nice letter of thanks to the Manager of the Hyatt in New Orleans.

Finally, I would like to give some advice as to what needs to be done to take Islam and Muslims out of the closet. The first thing we need to do is identify ourselves as Muslim wherever we have to register or show up in a meeting. Usually when some of these organizations want me to write down the name of the organization I am supposed to represent, instead of writing the name of my mosque or organization, I write down Islam. We don't have to look ethnic Muslim or dress like ethnic Muslims, but I have seen many non-ethnic Muslims look and dress like ethic Muslims. An example would be Iman Siraj Wahhaj and Yusuf Islam. We compliment our sisters for wearing the head cover and being identified as Muslim which is very nice and courageous of them. However, the Muslim young men who do not have a beard may have difficulty in being identified as Muslims. We should leave no opportunity to request a privilege which should be the right of Muslims such as a Muslim meal during airplane travel or interfaith conferences. Many times I have mentioned even to professional society and hospital meetings that I would like to make sure that no pork or alcohol is served at the conference.

The second thing we need to do is interact with non-Muslim organizations and groups of our concerns. For example, there are many anti-abortion groups, groups against homosexuality and pornography and drunken driving and so on. Muslims should be represented in each group. There are human rights organizations such as Amnesty and they have local chapters. Muslims should become part of these local chapters so that they can contribute both to the preservation of human rights and in all walks of violation of human rights and also be identified as Muslims. If there are any letters published in newspapers, again, any area of concern for the general public, we should write a letter in support expressing Islamic perspective on these issues and to let no opportunity go by to identify ourselves as Muslims individually or collectively. Recently some Muslim children in our area organized a trip to the bowling alley. They went in a group and they started bowling. Each time they would roll a ball, they would say "Allahu akbar" and finally, people around them started noticing that these were Muslims and that was why they were winning. Muslims in prisons, if they ask for their rights; for example, permissible food or right to perform the prescribed fast during Ramadan or to perform the Friday congregational prescribed prayer, they might be denied, but once they organize themselves and start asking these questions, they are given these privileges. Muslim parents should serve on school boards and review the books that are being taught to our children.

Many of the State Assembly and also the Congress have started their session with a prayer from a Muslim leader so more and more non- Muslims are noticing the presence of Muslims. We have to show them what Islam and Muslims are about with the example of our behavior and character in taking care of human needs.

I want to end this article with a light story. One Muslim woman in the modest charge, while looking for date in Ramadan in a supermarket to open her fast, asked the young boy, "Do you have date," and he replied, "I am not available tonight."